Our very own Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM) would appear to be as secretive as the NSA - perhaps even more secretive given Edward Snowden has provided so much insight into the NSA in recent months. Shouldn't TAM be accountable to the Marin residents that it serves? Why is there such a need for secrecy? Now TAM has caught the eye of one of the region's leading investigative journalists.
A Simple Request for Emails from Just 4 Staff is Rejected
On January 23rd I sent a public records request to TAM requesting the emails from just 4 of it's employees for a 2 year defined time period. A week later on January 30th the County of Marin's counsel responded stating "we have determined that is us unduly burdensome on TAM".
An IT administrator could export Outlook archives in a matter of minutes, perhaps an hour at most. Are the emails being sent so voluminous, or so secretive that they cannot simply be shared?
These are public employees paid for by the taxpayer, who are serving us. Why would they not provide visibility of how they are serving us unless they have something to hide?
While I asked for the emails of just 4 TAM employees the response made it sound as if I'd asked for the records of a large department and my request "accounts for one-third of TAM's staff". So does this mean if I send a request for the email of just one person from an organization with three staff it should be rejected on those grounds?
Why are These Emails Important?
Many residents continue to be puzzled by transportation decisions - decisions now being tightly linked to land use and housing policy - decisions resulting in plans, zoning and building of high density housing that frequently is opposed by the majority of residents.
So I'm puzzled - I want to better understand how transportation funding works and how it's being linked to these housing projects - ostensibly based on "transit oriented development". Do I know exactly which words to look for? - no, because planning is an area filled with jargon and an alphabet soup of acronyms and government agencies. I could end up asking for repeated requests each time I learn a new acronym.
So on January 10th I tightened my request. I focused on just 2 - that's right , just 2 members of TAMs staff. (perhaps they will object because that's an entire sixth of their organization!). I further tightened the request focusing on a period of approximately 4 months and tightening it to just 13 specific recipients and 2 public agencies.
I was wrong - this time they stated that I had not "presented a reasonably focused and specific request". It seems to me that someone is making up the rules to fit their own convenience. It seems that accountability and transparency is not a priority to this agency. Something is amiss.
How Can You Help?
Already I am getting insightful advice from journalists such as
Thomas Peele, an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group. If you're leading an agency and you're not following the rules or serving the public then you really don't want to be catching Thomas' attention. Thomas has won more than 50 journalism awards, for long-term investigations of government corruption - to clarify not 50 articles, 50 awards.
On seeing the second rejection Thomas' eyes were really opened. He makes public record requests routinely for the newspapers and stated "that's one of the worst [reasons for rejection] I've ever seen". [expletive deleted].
Questions are arising that maybe there is a story here and Thomas pointed me in a number of constructive directions. I've started to fill him in on a number of things - stay tuned.
Second I've brought in the First Amendment Coalition. A national organization, they happen to be based right here in San Rafael, they have already been in contact and are providing direction on next steps.
Third I've been in contact with the Marin Independent Journal that has been making an increasing focus on housing and transportation stories of late - most recently in Dick Spotswood's excellent piece
Transit Dependent Growth is Greenwash Growth in Marin.
Finally you too can help. If you have 30 seconds please send an email to Diane Steinhauser, executive president of TAM: mailto:DSteinhauser@tam.ca.gov
Simply ask what emails or records you would like to see, or better yet reinforce my request stating something such as the following:
"I'm a Marin taxpayer, I expect TAM as an agency that I pay for to be accountable and respond to reasonable requests. Please respond to Richard Hall's public records request submitted on January 30th"
Where there's Smoke...
Given this rejection is deemed one of the most unreasonable rejections by someone who makes a career of public records requests TAM has now created quite a little storm of controversy for itself. I would suggest that TAM responds in quick order - denying accountability as the high density housing issues heat up in the press is going to attract a great deal of attention.
What Else Can You Do?
If you share my interest in this information, why not send a request to Diane like I have done. It need only take 30 seconds. Just mail DSteinhauser@tam.ca.gov and ask to see emails that you want to see and request that the response is also sent to Richard Hall.
An email only takes 30 second to write - but a successful request could really help enlighten us as to what is occurring in Marin with regard to transportation and housing, particularly high density housing.
Go on - compose an email to Diane, you know you want to...after all we're all paying her salary - does TAM have something to hide?