To the editor:
Freedom of Information Act records are crucial to the public’s right to know about their elected leaders and the democratic process. The Alexandria city government website states that when it comes to FOIA requests, “All public records are presumed to be open and are withheld only if a specific exemption applies.”
Enter the Seminary Road diet. On March 18, 2021, the Alexandria Times published a letter to the editor, “Findings from a citizen FOIA about Seminary Road,” showing just how hard the city worked to avoid providing a response to a routine request for information in connection with the controversial and costly effort to remove driving lanes from a key arterial roadway. It is impossible to determine whether the redactions are valid, since the city blacked out author, recipient, subject, date and the body of hundreds of communications.
Importantly, records requests are only to be exempted due to a few reasons at the local level, including: attorney/client privilege, vendor proprietary information, personnel records, records relating to the negotiation and award of a contract and prisoner records.
Yet the city appears to have gone to great lengths to hide information from the public. When the Traffic and Parking Board recommended keeping four lanes on Seminary Road with pedestrian safety improvements, a reasonable compromise which was widely supported, the president of the local bicycle lobbying group, Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, fought against it.
Records show that he actively solicited legal advice from the city on how to structure an appeal. A series of emails in the chain were entirely redacted, making it impossible to know why city government officials were advising special interests with obvious conflicts about what to do, yet subject lines such as “Appeal acceptance language” and “Appeal received regarding Seminary Road decision of Traffic & Parking Board” indicate what was happening. The city relentlessly redacted anything related to the appeal – another brick in the city’s stonewall.
In another example, a different bike activist challenged City Council’s commitment to monitor the road diet’s traffic impacts. Again, the emails in the chain are entirely redacted by the city. And again, the city failed to identify any legal reason for withholding the information. These examples were clearly not a case of attorney-client privilege, so why the secrecy?
In two instances, the subject matter was “Alexandria INOVA Future” and “City/INOVA meeting tomorrow.” These materials were blacked out completely as “contract negotiations.” How was the hospital’s future tied to the road diet? We may never know.
The most egregious FOIA violation was identified by the Times as occurring Jan. 23, 2020, in its independent analysis of city records. The article disclosed how the Alexandria Fire Department tailored its story at the last minute to support the road diet. Voluminous emails were blacked out entirely, except for the subject line: “T&ES/Fire emails” and “Seminary Road TES/Fire emails.”
In one, there is a statement congratulating Fire Chief Corey Smedley on his selection as permanent fire chief in an email string titled, “Seminary Road Ambulance.” How is any of this information privileged to be withheld from citizens?
Ironically, there are also emails that are completely blacked out, except for a subject line which reads as follows: “Open and Transparent process for Seminary Rd. process.”
Redacting entire documents discussing open and transparent government seems sadly consistent with the city’s current strategy to keep the public in the dark when it comes to accountability. No explanation is ever provided for hiding so much information for a relatively small transportation change on a 0.9 mile stretch of road.
-Frank Putzu, Alexandria