These folks were seeking access to public records through a process that resembles Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, right down to a maddening list of permissible exemptions that allow the transit agency to withhold several categories of information. At the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), the process of obtaining public information is done through its Public Access to Records Policy, otherwise known as PARP.
PARP has become a verb for some and an epithet of frustration for others. It requires patience and money — at least in theory. Quarterly PARP reports say document requests generated more than $100,000 in fees in fiscal 2017, only $4,667 of which were collected. (The fees can be waived for media that disseminate their findings to the public, as well as for educational and scientific institutions seeking the records for noncommercial purposes.)
A log of last year’s requests — obtained through a PARP request, of course — offers a window into some of the things about one of the nation’s busiest transit systems that people wanted to know.
Someone used PARP as part of a senior capstone project on ridership. Another asked for records pertaining to Dunkin’ Donuts’s contract for a marketing partnership. The Baltimore Public Defender’s Office asked for documents on Metro’s use of facial recognition technology, including any records on searches Metro may have asked federal, state or local law enforcement agencies to conduct. (Dan Stessel, a Metro spokesman, said the agency does not use facial recognition technology.)
Last year, Tripping filed a request to obtain the Office of Inspector General’s investigation into allegations of falsified track and infrastructure inspections — a 2015 report that arguably should have been disseminated to the public as soon as the ink had dried. The agency provided the office’s report, along with some redactions, about six months later.
Perhaps the hottest topic in 2017 was the size of Metro ridership for President Trump’s inauguration. Most requests, however, appeared to be seeking videos, accident reports and other information related to accidents or incidents involving Metro vehicles and properties.
Some regulars who made requests said the PARP process has been a useful tool for shedding light on a transit agency that has been struggling to restore the public’s trust. Others say the PARP process often seems more concerned with shielding Metro than letting in the light: Documents get released, but often with a lot of redaction.
“I would say it’s to protect Metro in some way or fashion,” said Larry S. Lapidus, an attorney who has been digging out records from Metro for years and often battles its attorneys over redacted material. “When in doubt, they’re going to redact. If it’s a gray area, they’re going to decide to protect Metro,” Lapidus said. “They have taken privacy protection to the ultimate degree where it makes no sense."
Lapidus said he has had cases in which Metro provided documents that redacted police accident reports, which are considered public records. On other occasions, he’s received accident reports involving agency vehicles that censored the names of their operators. Metro also routinely blacks out internal assessments of whether an accident could have been prevented, he said. Lapidus also complained PARPs take too long, a criticism echoed by others.
Unsuck DC Metro, one of Metro’s most biting Twitter gadflies and the author of the eponymous blog, said he often became frustrated by the length of time it took to fulfill PARP requests. It wasn’t unusual to receive documents well after the newsy moment was gone, he said.
“I’m pretty sure I have some outstanding ones from [2009-14],” Unsuck DC Metro said in a message. “Ugh.”
When fiscal 2017 began, Metro had 78 open PARP requests on its books. Metro then received a total of 278 new public document requests on the year, or about 23 a month. Of those new requests, 34 were filed by news organizations, or about three per month. Each request took an average of 70 days to fulfill, according to quarterly PARP reports.
How they were fulfilled is another matter. Only 19 requests during fiscal 2017, or about 7 percent of all new PARP requests, were granted in full, meaning without exemptions. Metro’s general counsel, Patricia Lee, oversees PARP and the five staffers, full time and part time, who handled requests in 2017.
Sherri Ly, a spokeswoman for Metro, said the general counsel does not grant interviews. She said the agency also does its best to comply quickly and fairly with each PARP request, including some that are highly technical and voluminous in scope. In her email, Ly cited a 21-part request that sought “all documents pertaining to the 7000-series rail cars (including nonexistent records that we had to expend resources trying to find) and required more than 100 staff hours.”
Ly also said the agency withholds information as permitted under PARP exemptions, adding that those who make requests also have the right of appeal. The list of allowable exemptions includes “preliminary conclusions” in accident investigations, and she said that those are handled by local law enforcement agencies in each of Metro’s different jurisdictions.
Here are some tidbits gleaned from the 2017 log of PARP requests:
- Metro’s largest organized labor organization, Local 689 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, made a detailed request for information about D.C. Circulator’s personnel, training, ridership numbers and other data. The union put in similar requests for Metrobus and MetroAccess Paratransit, along with requests for the transit agency’s financial data.
- A neighbors group in Tenleytown requested the geological report prepared for Metro in 1973 to determine the location of the tunnel running from the Van Ness-UDC Station to the Tenleytown-AU station.
- Prequin, an international company that compiles data on finance, sought records about any assets invested by Metro in hedge funds.
- Unsuck DC Metro requested the contract spelling out the agency’s $27,500 marketing contract with Greater Greater Washington, a nonprofit organization and blog devoted to making D.C. a transit-friendly city.
- Judicial Watch requested copies of manuals, protocols and procedures for testing and updating train control software and other technical data pertaining to 7000-series train.
- A woman identifying herself as a reporter for TYT Politics used the Freedom-of-Information-Act website MuckRock to ask Metro for any emails or other communications with Milo Yiannopoulos, the controversial alt-right figure whose book ad was posted and later removed from the transit agency’s property last year. Metro replied there were no responsive documents, according to posted correspondence on MuckRock.
- Another requester, also using MuckRock, asked for any emails containing the word “manspreading,” which is the fairly self-explanatory term for when a (usually) male rider spreads himself across more than one seat on a public conveyance. Alas, unlike other transit agencies, however, Metro found nothing responsive, according to MuckRock’s request.
Lapidus, the attorney who’s been “PARPing” for a long time, said, at times, Metro acts like a private corporation that has no obligation to release information to the public unless it’s been subpoenaed. But as unwieldy and time consuming as the process can seem, it’s still a useful tool, he said.
“I’ve been doing this for decades,” he said, “and overall it’s an improvement over giving the public nothing."
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