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Public Authority Puts Thousands of Freedom of Information Requests Online

BY Miranda Neubauer | Monday, April 30 2012

Under a new freedom of information code for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that was set to go into effect April 15, the public authority has released 22,000 pages of documents on the Internet — including every response to a Freedom of Information Act request received in 2011.

The revised Freedom of Information Code:

  • aims to clarify the kinds of records that can be subject to FOI requests and which are exempt;
  • provides that the Authority post fulfilled requests on the Port Authority's Web site with the exception of police and accident reports;
  • streamlines the procedure for requesters to obtain judicial review of FOI decisions;
  • and suspends copying and search fees for FOI requests for up to a year, according to the press release and a Powerpoint presentation to the Authority's Board Committee on Operations.

The 20,000 documents posted online include, according to a press release, all answered FOI requests from 2011, more than 500 pages of 2011 board and committee presentations, numerous contracts between the Port Authority and private firms, as well as more than 300 pages of toll and fare hearing transcripts, as well as updated Port Authority/PATH payroll information, with from 2008 forward, in Excel format.

Transparency activist John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, says this is "great and stupid at the same time."

"Putting the FOIed responses in online is great, is really good," he said. "That said, their responses are all in scanned image form, which makes them non-machine readable."

That means they aren't easy to search without rifling through them one by one, which sort of defeats the purpose of putting something online. He added that it's unhelpful that the folders listed on the site are undated with unclear numbering.

"To us this comes across a huge example of hidden in plain sight," he said. "It's inexcusable that they would scan all their own responses as images, and claim that this putting a lot of information online," he said.

He also said that it was "really bad practice" for the Authority to publicly release the personal information of individuals making FOIL requests, such as the e-mail address of somebody asking about a contract. "If you're an individual, it can be intimidating, that you're personal information would this exposed," he said.

But since the Port Authority site is difficult to search, that's less of an issue. While Kaehny believes that someone who came to the authority, responsible for wide swaths of commercial and commuter transportation in New York and New Jersey, demanding that a name be redacted from the site would have a legitimate case, the site is so hard to navigate that this scenario is unlikely to happen.

The Port Authority's statement from the end of March says that "while initially the site will post documents under basic categories it will become increasingly searchable." At the moment, the search function only seems to apply to the titles of the documents. The Port Authority declined to elaborate on its new policy.

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