By LESLEY MCLAM
In the modern Age of Information, there is so much data that the average person can get their hands on. However, one way of getting information is often underutilized by the public yet is well known to journalists and reporters, and that is a FOIA request.
Rachel Alexander of the Society of Professional Journalists says that “public records are often mistakenly thought of as just a tool for journalists.” As Alexander says, “there are broad applications,” for the use of public records “from research and academia, to a lot of activism and community organizing, science, and advocacy.”
FOIA stands for Freedom of Information Act. In 1967, the US Congress passed a law mandating that any public citizen may request records from a federal agency. The law also requires regularly requested and “certain categories of information” to be regularly posted online by certain agencies, according to the website.
This law also applies to state and local governments, which helps citizens understand what the government is doing.
This is how a community outreach or service group may collect data that they can use to determine what type of services are needed, and for whom. It can also help citizens advocates hold government officials accountable to the law and how taxpayer funds are spent.
How to file a FOIA request
I was curious as to how difficult, or easy, it might be for someone to request information from the City of Portland if they were not a well-known name, so I did it myself.
First, I’d need to know what to request, and to which office I needed to make the request. A quick online search can help you find the correct government office, or official, to send your request to.
I decided that the current hotbed issue of houseless persons would be ideal, since the topic is of great interest to those living in Portland, housed or not. I also knew that I should be as specific as possible as to what information I was requesting, and be sure not to word it too broadly or vaguely.
Next, I decided to draft an email to the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) asking about the reports made regarding houseless people and camps in a specific area of St. Johns which I have reported on before, the Peninsula Crossing Trail near North Columbia Boulevard.
I received a very prompt and courteous email in my inbox early the next morning from Sonia Schmanski, Commissioner Nick Fish‘s chief of staff. Schmanski was very helpful in informing me that Homelessness/Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program (HUCIRP), which is overseen by the Office of Management and Finance (OMF), is the custodian of the information.
She also provided a link to the City’s record request system, GovQA which is how all record requests are handled by the City of Portland.
At the City’s website I was asked to provide some basic information to create a profile for myself in order to use the online record request system. This seemed reasonable.
After creating my profile, I easily found the links for the types of records which could be requested, such as Police and Fire Departments, 911 calls and Development records that include building permits. I selected General City Requests.
On the actual record request page there were a couple boxes to check off and fill in, as well as a blank section to write the actual request. I filled in the basics such as my name and what I was requesting and selected the box asking for a fee waiver. I clicked on send and hoped for the best.
I sent that request on the after of December 4, 2019, and received an email from Heather Hafer, senior management analyst for Office of Management & Finance, at 7:44 pm. I was pleasantly surprised by the quick response, especially after business hours.
Hafer had three questions related to the fee waiver I had chosen: 1. How would my organization intend to use this information? 2. How would this information benefit the wider public? 3. How do I or my organization intend to disseminate this information?
After sending my replies of: 1. Informing the public 2. Gaining a greater understanding of the issue of houseless persons in that area, and 3. the internet, I waited.
On December 13, 2019 my record request was fulfilled. I received an email informing me to go online to the GovQA system and access the document(s) I requested. I was thrilled, it only took 9 days!
I went to the GovQA webpage and selected “View My Requests” from the center of the page, which prompted me to login to the account I’d created when making the initial request.
The information was very easy to spot and had a green “completed” taskbar at the bottom signifying that my request had been fulfilled, as well as noting how many days ago it had been since the request had been made.
Since I had asked for the reports made about houseless camps in a certain time frame, and in a specific location, from the One-Point-of-Contact reporting system, the information was presented in a spreadsheet form in order to be easily digestible. I greatly appreciated the spreadsheet format.
Even when you get the information you request, it may not be very simple to read or quick to go through. It might not even be as interesting as you had anticipated, but can be satisfying to be able to better inform yourself and your community about local affairs and issues.
There were 89 complaints listed, spanning between May and October of 2019. A couple complaints were made by City maintenance personnel who mow property for Parks & Recreation. Several of the complaints listed were not actual for houseless camps on the Peninsula Crossing Trail that I had asked for, but were for the surrounding Portsmouth neighborhood.
The data I had received showed that out of the 89 listed complaints: 15 said there was a vehicle while another 32 did not select either yes or no at all on the presence of a vehicle, only 17 mentioned having a dog while 47 of the entries were blank on the question of a canine presence.
Another curious takeaway from the data I requested was to discover that only 12 of the One-Point-of-Contact reports I requested for that neighborhood report “repeated instances of overly aggressive behavior from campers,” a few of which appear to be reports on the same campers, suggesting that the majority of those reports were about unhoused folks camping harmlessly.
When going through this particular record request process, I was consistently pleased at how fairly straightforward and simple to use the City of Portland’s system was. It was very clear where my request was at each step of the process through the GovQA system, and there were no real difficulties in obtaining the information requested.
Yet, every reporter or journalist does run into difficulties in having their requests filled, from time to time. The SPJ and other similar organizations stand at the ready to help their members when this happens. These member-based groups can offer advice which can help a reporter better craft their requests.
But, what if you are not a member of a group such as the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society for Advancing Business Editing & Writing, or Society of Environmental Journalists?
Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Sunlight Foundation, Electronic Freedom Foundation, and other groups which advocate for transparency in government can be useful resources for the inquisitive citizen.
Alexander of the SPJ says that “there are a variety of groups that advocate for open government in Oregon, and across the US.” However, she also informs that “the one thing the SPJ tries to do as an organization is to empower people to request those records, and help whoever do it; journalist or not.”
Lesley McLam is completing her second degree at Portland Community College, studying journalism and communications. She’s the proud mama of a beautiful 14-year-old black cat, and a volunteer anchor, copywriter, reporter, and occasional producer at KBOO community radio who is just beginning to learn about the world of podcasting.