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New land-speed FOIL record

I can’t tell you how often I start working on a story, interview a few people, and then discover — about mid-day — that I’d have some really juicy, highly relevant information if only I could get my hands on some official paperwork.

Always, this paperwork is kept behind lock and key in some governmental office, so I go over and beg. Actually, I usually call them up and beg.

Please, I say, you can pull it up on your computer in five seconds flat. For that matter, if you let me in there, I can pull it up in five seconds. Please, please give it to me.

And inevitably, they say to me: FOIL it.

The Freedom of Information Law allows any of us private layabouts to get our hands on great information. But it is not built for the press. The law specifically allows a delay of five days before the government agency has to tell you whether they’ll give it to you — and then any number of days, weeks, months or even years (oh, yes, I’m still waiting on some) before they actually have to produce it.

In theory, this time period involves not only the actual time it would take to pull out the document, but also the time it takes to get through all the FOIL requests that were submitted before yours. In other words, just this side of forever.

So while I shoot off FOIL requests just about every day of the week — to the city, the county, the state — I never, ever get that information in time to use it in my story. Because my deadline is always "today" and that just doesn’t fly with FOIL requests.

About half the time the data is still useful whenever I do get it, and then I write another story, which inevitably goes like this: Remember all those questions my last story raised? Here are the answers!

It’s like the crossword puzzle. Wait a day and you can see the answers, sometimes printed upside-down. Except with this, you wait an unknown number of days, and then it just pops out at you.

Readers are, justifiably, irritated by this, and they often call me up after the first story to point out all the answerless questions in it.

They usually pepper this delightful conversation with insults, as in: “Hey, you lazy reporter, why the heck can’t you give us some actual facts now and again?”

They are not at all impressed when I have to say, “Well, I FOILed for it, but they say my request is about two feet down, so I may have to wait six months … but I’ll get back to you then.”

Now that I’ve made you thoroughly aware of the pain of FOIL, let me tell you about last week.

I experienced something that completely erased eight years of traumatic FOIL memories in my mind.

In fact, I think this event has never before happened. To anyone. Ever.

I sent out a FOIL request to the city last Thursday at 12:14 p.m.

Seven minutes later, Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden e-mailed me.

The e-mail was just one sentence long.

“I have attached the materials you requested.”

I must admit, for a moment I didn’t believe my eyes. Seven minutes? That’s got to be a land-speed record. I have never heard of anybody getting a FOIL request that fast.

I was so shocked that I opened the attachment in disbelief. I was certain, for a minute, that it would be a page of blacked-out lines (that’s happened more times than I can count) or something useless, like one unlabeled number.

But no. Not only was it what I wanted, it was more than I had asked for.

I just about fell out of my chair.

I’d asked for the number of hours used for injury leave in the Police Department in 2007 and 2008. He gave me that — and more. I had the number of injuries, the number of days taken off for each injury, the percentage of the year taken off … it was even totaled at the bottom of each page.

It was so much information that I had to postpone the story for a day so that I could put it all in a spreadsheet and calculate the average number of days off, without outliers, and all that other number-crunching stuff that I almost never have the data to do.

I couldn’t believe it. This is one for the record books. I dare any journalist, anywhere, to get a detailed government record on a semi-private subject (the identities of employees and details of what their injuries were can be withheld from the public) in less than seven minutes.

Go on. Try it.

You’ll never beat this record.

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August 5, 2009
9:08 a.m.

[ Flag Post ]

Pretty impressive, Kathleen. I noticed just the other day that the City's FOIL request form basically says "we'll get back to you in 20 days, unless we need more time." A cynic might wonder if the quick reply this time has something to do with the Mayor or Corporation Counsel wanting to get you the numbers quickly because they could be used as leverage over the police union in current bargaining or jockeying for position. Whatever the reason, this is a very good FOIL precedent, making long delays less justifiable in the future, even if it remains for now a miraculous outlier in the FOIL process.

August 7, 2009
11:22 p.m.

[ Flag Post ]

Perhaps it is testament to your fine jounalism Kathleen!

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