At some basic theoretical level, I always understood why open records laws were important.
The idea that anyone can wander up to any governmental agency, demand information, and get it is a good idea. After all, our tax dollars pay for the generation, collection, organization, and strorage of that data. Our tax dollars pay for the bureaucrats who use that data. In the end, that data belongs to us. Now that I find myself writing a story for one of the local newspapers where I am trying to get data from a relatively mundane city agency, I fully appreciate how important open records laws are to journalists.
I’m writing a story about automobile crashes in the city of Madison and how one of the intersections that used to be very dangerous is now quite safe. Changes made to a highway underpass a full 1/4 of a mile away from the problematic intersection freed up traffic to flow better through the intersection which reduced the number of accidents at that intersection by over 80%. Obviously, that was a change for the better. That is why we pay tax dollars for a traffic engineering department.
The Madison Traffic Engineering department publishes an annual crash report every year in late July or early August. This report contains a variety of information about crashes around the city between motor vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians. Quite frankly, it is an excellent piece of information that is freely available to the public.
In the course of working a different angle of a story, I learned that the vast majority of the data for 2004 is sitting on Traffic Engineering’s computers. They just don’t release it until later in the summer for two reasons:
- They like to check their data against data they get from the state DOT, even though the two data sets vary little.
- They like to stage manage the release of the data later in the summer so that all the newspapers get the data at the same time.
So, when I found out that I could get the data sooner than everyone else, and just by asking, I went for it.
My requests for the data were met with stonewalling and lame excuses. Clearly, they were trying to put me off until later in the summer when it wouldn’t matter if they gave me the data I wanted.
So, at the urging of a local newspaper editor, I filed an open records request for the data.
Again, I got more stonewalling from the staff of Traffic Engineering. Now, I was just getting it from someone higher on the totem pole.
So, I’m still working on getting the data I (partially) paid for with my taxes from people whose salary I (partially) pay.
Hopefully, this goofy soap opera will end soon.