Stories indexed with the term ‘FOIA’

Column: When Lawyers Fool with FOIA

Two weeks ago, the city of Ann Arbor took a deliberate step to remove a document that had been publicly available on its website for nearly half a decade. Why?

Redacted version of Library Lot RFP No. 743  from Aug. 14, 2009 produced by the city of Ann Arbor in response to a recent FOIA request. The un-redacted document had been disseminated on the website from Aug. 14, 2009 until sometime around March 20, 2014.

Redacted version of Library Lot RFP No. 743  from Aug. 14, 2009 produced by the city of Ann Arbor in response to a recent FOIA request. The un-redacted document had been disseminated on the website from Aug. 14, 2009 until sometime around March 20, 2014.

Allegedly, that document contains information that – if it were disclosed – would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of someone’s privacy. Never mind the fact that the context of the document itself makes clear that the information in question is clearly and deliberately intended to be publicly available.

To erase any possible doubt about that, I resorted to an advanced investigative technique: I asked the guy. And it turns out that current Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board member John Splitt had been content to have publicly disclosed as his email contact information in the document – the same as elsewhere on the Internet.

The document in question is RFP No. 743 – issued in 2009 by the city for development of the Library Lot. Why did it even occur to anyone at the city to delete RFP No. 743 from [Full Story]

DDA OKs Streetscape Contract, Parking Permits

Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority board meeting (Nov. 6, 2013): Two voting items were considered by the board: (1) an award of a consulting contract to SmithGroupJJR and Nelson\Nygaard to develop a streetscape framework plan; and (2) approval of monthly permits in the public parking system for the 624 Church St. project.

From left: Peter Allen, Dennis Tice, Brad Moore, Sabra Briere

From left: Local developer Peter Allen, 624 Church St. project owner Dennis Tice, that project’s architect Brad Moore, and Ward 1 city councilmember Sabra Briere. Briere accepted congratulations on her council re-election win the previous day. (Photos by the writer.)

Both items were approved on unanimous votes at the meeting, which featured perfect attendance by the 11 current members of the board. The following evening, on Nov. 7, the Ann Arbor city council confirmed the appointment of Cyndi Clark, owner of Lily Grace Cosmetics, to fill a vacancy on the 12-member DDA body. At its Nov. 6 meeting, the board did not discuss either Clark’s appointment or the other council agenda item affecting the DDA – a revision to the city ordinance that regulates the DDA TIF (tax increment financing) capture.

The sale of monthly parking permits for the 624 Church St. development was an issue that the DDA board had previously considered – for an earlier version of the project, which had actually completed the city approval process. It had gone through planning commission review and recommendation, with a site plan approved by the city council on March 4, 2013. For that earlier version, the project was required to provide 42 parking spaces for the additional residential square footage it contained beyond the by-right density under the city’s zoning code. Instead of providing the parking spaces on-site, the owner of the project sought to satisfy the requirement through the contribution in lieu (CIL) program – a request that was granted by the DDA.

For this revised and expanded version of the project – made possible through additional land acquisition – a greater number of parking spaces is required. And the project owner again sought to meet that requirement through the CIL program. So at its Nov. 6 meeting, the DDA board granted the project owner the ability to purchase 48 monthly parking permits in the Forest Avenue parking structure.

The DDA board also acted on its streetscape framework project. The contract awarded to SmithGroupJJR and Nelson\Nygaard is meant to provide guidance for developing future streetscape projects, not to design any specific streetscape project. The most recent streetscape improvement undertaken by the DDA was the Fifth and Division project, which included lane reconfigurations and bump-outs.

In addition to its voting items, the board received a raft of updates, which included reports on the first quarter financials. The DDA is essentially on course to realize $4.5 million in TIF capture revenue and about $19 million in parking revenue. Other updates included reports on preparations for the NHL Winter Classic hockey game, debriefing on the International Downtown Association conference attended by some board members and staff, Freedom of Information Act issues, and public commentary.

The board heard from Ray Detter, speaking on behalf of the downtown area citizens advisory council, about the ongoing downtown zoning review. Detter’s remarks were countered by DDA board members. Detter reprised his comments at the city planning commission meeting later that evening. So that back-and-forth will be reported out in more detail as a part of The Chronicle’s Nov. 6, 2013 city planning commission report. [Full Story]

Ann Arbor: Pot Non-Disclosure Not Needed

At its March 21, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council did not consider a policy on non-disclosure of certain information, like names and birth dates for patients and caregivers, that might be collected in the course of the zoning and licensing process for medical marijuana businesses.

Because the medical marijuana licensing ordinance that received initial approval that same evening ultimately did not include the collection of any personal information, the resolution was withdrawn by its sponsor, Sabra Briere (Ward 1). The non-disclosure policy had been discussed, but postponed, at the council’s March 7, 2011 meeting.

The resolution had originally been introduced by Briere in the context of the council’s current work on zoning and licensing ordinances for medical marijuana businesses – legislation that has not yet been given final approval by the council. [.pdf of original draft resolution]

This brief was filed from the boardroom in the Washtenaw County administration building, where the council is meeting due to renovations in the city hall building. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

AAPS Sets Superintendent Salary Range

Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education special regular meeting (Nov. 3, 2010): At Wednesday’s special regular meeting of the Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS) school board, a slim majority of trustees approved a motion by president Deb Mexicotte to set the annual salary for the new superintendent “in the range of $245,000.” It was one of two unusual split votes for the board.

The board also voted 5 to 2 to allow themselves access to the full set of candidate applications, ultimately resolving a conflict they have been grappling with for several weeks. While it grants access to applications, the motion passed by the board prohibits individual trustees from directly selecting specific candidates out of the pool for consideration. The motion stipulates that if trustees’ review of the applications leads them to feel that the established search criteria were not well-applied to the candidate pool, a majority of the board may request an additional review of the pool by the search firm.

The meeting also saw less contentious resolutions of the other remaining aspects of the search process, including: the candidate profile, promotional materials, application form, advertising plan, and timeline. [Full Story]

City Settles Lawsuit: Must Conduct Study

On March 15, the Ann Arbor city council voted to direct its city attorney to settle a lawsuit filed in August 2009 over the construction of an underground parking garage on the city-owned Library Lot site along Fifth Avenue. The lawsuit addressed environmental concerns, open meetings and freedom of information issues, as well as nuisance allegations by neighboring property owners.

Now the city of Ann Arbor has settled that lawsuit, accepting a range of requirements under the agreement.

Under terms of the settlement signed on Monday, the city has agreed to comply substantively with a request that one of the plaintiffs – The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center – had originally made over two months before the lawsuit was filed. That request was to conduct a study of environmental impacts associated with construction of the new underground parking structure, which is being built by the Downtown Development Authority.

The lawsuit settlement does not resolve the question of whether city councilmembers committed violations of the Open Meetings Act, when they communicated during their meetings via email about an agenda item related to approval of bonds for the parking structure.

However, the Ann Arbor city council is required by the settlement terms to discuss publicly, at one of their April 2010 meetings, the possibility of establishing a council rule that addresses which email accounts they use to conduct city business. [Full Story]

Parking Deck Pre-Tensioned with Lawsuit

View of construction sight for proposed underground parking garage looking east to west. Herb David Guitar Studios and Jerusalem Garden are located in the upper right corner of the block.

View of construction site (Ed. note: corrected from "sight") for proposed underground parking garage looking east to west. Herb David Guitar Studios and Jerusalem Garden are located in the upper right corner of the block. (Image links to Microsoft's Bing Maps for full interactive display.)

As The Chronicle previously reported, at last week’s city council meeting, Ann Arbor CFO Tom Crawford announced that bonds for the 677-space South Fifth Avenue underground parking garage had been sold on Aug. 5.

And on Friday, Aug. 7, the Downtown Development Authority’s capital improvements committee conducted interviews with four candidate companies for the job of construction manager of the garage.

Then, by Wednesday morning of this week, references and financials for the Christman Company had checked out to the satisfaction of the DDA staff and Carl Walker – the design firm that’s been hired for the project. DDA executive director Susan Pollay is working out a time for a special meeting of the whole board to award the job to Christman.

But the day before, on Aug. 11, a lawsuit in connection with the parking garage project – which had previously been threatened by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center – was actually filed. The complaint alleges violations of the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, the Michigan Open Meetings Act, as well as nuisance and trespass violations.  Herb David Guitar Studio and Jerusalem Garden restaurant are plaintiffs in the suit, along with GLELC. [Full Story]

FOIA Update: Printed vs. Electronic Records

attempted redaction with magic marker that says out of public discussionattempted redaction with magic marker that says out of public discussion

Example of attempted redaction of printed electronic record with magic marker by the city of Ann Arbor.

As we reported in connection with a recent column analyzing the possible legal and ethical implications of email exchanges among Ann Arbor city councilmembers, The Chronicle requested additional email records from the city.

Our purpose in requesting additional records was to explore more fully the workings of the city council as reflected in emailed communications – and to compare that with the public deliberations at the council table. That public discourse is something we already describe in a fair amount of detail in our meeting reports. [Full Story]

Column: Email and Open Meetings

As we reported more than a month ago, a Freedom of Information Act request made by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center – in connection with a possible environmental lawsuit against the city of Ann Arbor – yielded records of email correspondence between Ann Arbor city councilmembers made during some of their regular council meetings.

In that article, we indicated that the “the content seems to fall into two categories: (i) adolescent humor, and (ii) apparent ‘backchannel’ discussion of issues before the council, which raises more serious concerns.” The content of some of those emails has now been published in various forms in other media outlets.

We begin our own treatment of this episode in city politics by providing historical context for the Ann Arbor community’s concern about city council email exchanges during council meetings – one that predates the FOIA requests by GLELC.

In that context, we’d like to consider one of the email exchanges in more detail and use it to illuminate ethical issues surrounding the use of electronic communications during official meetings. And on that basis, we’ll explore some possibilities for the use of technology to push information to the public, instead of using it to screen decision-making processes from the public. In addition to the ethical and informational issues, there are legal questions that arise from these FOIA-ed materials. Those legal questions relate to possible  violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act, as well as the city’s preparedness to meet the requirements of FOIA when electronic records are requested. [Full Story]