Your Views: Findings from a citizen FOIA about Seminary Road

Your Views: Findings from a citizen FOIA about Seminary Road
Intersection of Seminary Road and Greenwood Place. (Photo credit: Missy Schrott)

To the editor:

In the aftermath of the stunning story, “Times analysis: Seminary Road FOIA docs” the Alexandria Times published on Jan. 23, 2020 showing how the Alexandria Fire Department was shut out from providing input about whether to narrow Seminary Road near Inova Alexandria Hospital, concerned residents, including myself, submitted a broader request under the Freedom of Information Act. Initially, the city said it would cost nearly $20,000 for materials which should already be public – a shocking response.

To control costs, we narrowed the request to cover: Mayor Justin Wilson, City Manager Mark Jinks, Director of Transportation & Environmental Services Yon Lambert, T&ES Deputy Hilary Orr, City Spokesperson Craig Fifer and City Fire Chief Corey Smedley. We requested information between May 1, 2019 and Feb. 27, 2020. The records for this time period from these six officials – just what they wrote about the Seminary Road diet – cost the public roughly $5,000 to see and were paid for by small contributions from dozens of committed residents.

In that 10-month period, these six public officials generated nearly 32,000 pages of emails pertaining to the Seminary Road diet. This was overwhelming activity for a 0.9-mile road diet. Why so much effort?

Within this vast pool of FOIA documents, patterns of withholding information can be clearly seen. Was the public’s right to know being actively undermined? The records clearly show that some city leaders kept road diet information from disclosure.

The city itself redacted or blacked out information in many important passages of the documents. Sometimes entire documents were withheld for stated reasons such as attorney-client privilege, contract negotiations, proprietary information and privacy – all situations that seem to be incongruous with officials discussing a small transportation policy change.

Curiously, the city also redacted “records of persons imprisoned in penal institutions in the Commonwealth.” Did someone go to prison over the Seminary Road diet? Has it failed that badly?

There were also sources of materials which we know exist but are simply missing. Text messages contained revealing information, such as in one instance when Wilson and Fifer exchanged texts inquiring into which comments on social media may have been from city employees.

That text string was contained in Fifer’s FOIA production. Fifer’s production also contained relevant texts with Lambert, Orr, Smedley and others.

Yet, we did not locate any texts in the FOIA production from Wilson, Lambert, Orr or Smedley. Lambert and Orr had texts from unrelated FOIA productions, but none we could locate here.

Mayor Wilson is a voracious user of text messages, yet not one text message was produced from his records, even though there were some texts in other officials’ productions to and from the mayor. Where are the mayor’s text messages? Where did they go? On what basis did the city hide these categories of information?

No one should be surprised any longer at the lack of transparency. It is a strategy.

Recently, Alexandrians learned of another planned road diet on the reconfiguration of King Street near Bradlee Shopping Center – from Arlington residents who were consulted months earlier by their officials. They were startled when they learned Alexandrians knew nothing about an Alexandria project.

While Arlington timely and professionally engaged its public, Alexandria had been quietly chasing a $40 million grant for months to bind us before any resident knew of it, in stark contrast to Arlington. Amazingly, Alexandria responded to Arlington residents but not its own.

In the coming weeks, we will reveal more substantive information from this round of FOIA disclosures. The public has a right to know how city hall really makes decisions and what it really thinks about Alexandrians. Stay tuned!

-Frank Putzu, Alexandria