FOIA-Tracking Websites Gain Steam in D.C., New York City

District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray Shutterstock

More than a month after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new website to track public-records requests in his city, the District of Columbia government has launched its own Freedom of Information Act online portal this week.

The move, announced by D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray on Monday, comes amid ongoing criticism over the District government’s failure to respond to and process public-records requests in a timely manner.

The new portal will include 50 District agencies and assign every FOIA request a number that can be tracked by the user, according to a media advisory. It will also allow the D.C. government to track an agency’s FOIA request compliance and publish frequently-requested documents in a FOIA “Reading Room.”

“This new online FOIA system is a key part of our strategy to improve government transparency and accountability,” Gray said on Monday, according to a media advisory.

The D.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, according to The Washington Times, has asked D.C.’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to investigate whether Gray’s government has been responding to such requests in a timely manner and complying with local regulations for public-records access.

“In eight recent requests, only two were done on time. It’s a worse history than usual,” ACLU attorney Fritz Mulhauser said according to The Washington Times. “Agencies are pleading backlog and claiming our requests are too voluminous to handle.”

The new FOIAXpress software cost the D.C. government $247,337, according to Washington City Paper.

Last month, de Blasio announced his city’s new online portal to track public records requests made under New York’s Freedom of Information Law. The release of the city’s FOIL tracker took many open-government advocates by surprise since they were in the midst of pushing more comprehensive FOIL transparency legislation.

As Gotham Gazette reported last month:

The de Blasio administration pitched the City Hall FOIL tracker as an "excellent first step," one that would be used as a pilot for other agencies. But when pressed for a timetable or a plan to achieve that goal, [Counsel to the Mayor Maya] Wiley had no specific answer. She said the administration wants to use its prototype and assess the FOIL systems at each agency before moving forward.

At first glance it appears the administration is taking proactive steps to address an issue that Mayor de Blasio brought up in 2013 when he was Public Advocate. But his solution and the manner in which it was unveiled has led some to question if the new tool is really a solution at all.

"This legislation is here to stay," New York City Councilmember Ben Kallos, who chairs the Governmental Affairs Committee, told Gotham Gazette in June. "It is here to be passed. It is here to become law. It is just a matter of time."

Kallos’ office told GovExec State & Local on Tuesday that the councilmember and sponsors were still pursuing their Open FOIL tracking legislation and appreciated that the mayor is committed to the goals of the Open FOIL process.

But online Freedom of Information portals are not necessarily a perfect solution.

In the case of New York’s Rockland County, up to 36 FOIL requests sent to the county sheriff through the county’s portal were not responded to because of outdated email addresses.

"In a nutshell, the FOIL officer at the sheriff's department wasn't checking the mailbox for the FOIL requests," Rockland County spokesman Scott Salotto told the Journal News last week.

(Image of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray by Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com)

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