In a search for basic information regarding Arlington County, I was told I would have to FOIA it. WHAT?!?!?! Why would I have to FOIA anything that should be easily accessible on a website? Furthermore, why would I have to pay for it?!
As background, the FOIA was signed into law in 1966. Following the Watergate scandal, FOIA became what it is today including the timeframes, penalties for non-compliance, and the parameters of fees and waivers. Prior to the internet, the FOIA provided access to information filed away in a cabinet somewhere. In 1996, Clinton amended FOIA to reflect the changes that technology brought to the availability of information.
Arlington follows Virginia FOIA laws. Looking at the list it seems incredibly limited given the amount of information that the county has electronically. It reflects a notable lack of “will” to make information available to the public through the robust Arlington County website. Basic information on the County is unavailable or buried. Being uneasily found and if found, impossible to be analyzed in its current format, necessitates a FOIA.
A recent example was when I was trying to see who donated to Dorsey’s campaign. Why wouldn’t all of the public campaign documents be available as a link on the board member’s biography page to provide community members access to relevant materials about the elected official? Another example was trying to identify the length of Mark Schwartz’s contract and when it was up for renewal. As a direct report to the County Board, this seems like information I shouldn’t have to ask for. One colleague was seeking information on number of the numbers of Arlington employees, vehicles, and properties, and was told that would need to be FOIA’d. While on a working group a few years ago, we were seeking to understand the basics of county owned property – utilization, condition, cost of ownership – and we were told it wasn’t relevant to the conversation and the staff wasn’t sharing the information without a FOIA.
Arlington’s FOIA practices are confounded by the bad meeting minute’s practices of Arlington county staff. Many citizens have noted how a pack of staff shows up at every community meeting but notably the notes are sparse and often the staff seems like they may be thinking about their grocery list. However, the meeting notes, even when there are dedicated meeting takers ie in the Commission meetings, are general, unattributed, and vague in the conversation, debate, and outcomes. This lack of detail makes it impossible for non-attendees to understand the scope of the conversation. Furthermore, FOIA’d staff communications are imprecise and ambiguous with many email trains abruptly stopping resulting in a complete lack of insight as to how decisions are determined.
It’s time for Arlington to be progressive on the access to information. Don’t tell me there is private information that can’t be shared; I get that and didn’t ask for anyone’s health record, transcript, disciplinary record, or salary.
There is plenty of information that can be shared, should be easily available, and needs to be formatted in a way that a non-participating party can follow. The availability of information needs to be built into staff workflow with the recognition that getting the right information in the right spot will actually save them time. Let’s be real, they are getting paid with tax dollars so they either can embed information in accessible areas the first time or we will use more tax dollars to get them to pull the information a second time.
Too much work? There are a few options. One is to tape everything and have it in a format that everyone can watch. Alternatively, there’s this great new thing called AI that can transcribe every single meeting for pennies on the dollars we are paying staff to “take notes”.
While many of us are proud to live in a blue-county, the behaviors taken by our current county government of late have been notably the very behaviors we loathe when done by the opposition. Creating reasonable paths to accessing data is not rocket science and is important to be an inclusive, transparent community. Arlington has a chance to be a real trail blazer and democratize information for everyone.