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D.C. Agencies’ FOIA Request Backlog Huge for Second Year

Fritz Mulhauser | April 22, 2022 | Last modified: April 4, 2023

D.C. agencies ended 2021 with over 2,500 unanswered requests for records, according to the mayor’s annual FOIA processing report released in March. Coalition analysis of the last five years of such reports shows 2021 was the second year of such high numbers left unanswered, even as the total request volume is trending down.

With many agency employees sent home at the pandemic onset in March 2020, the D.C. Council suspended the law setting a deadline of 15 days for response to requests. D.C. lawmakers, unlike those in most other states and cities, viewed records searches as low priority or even impossible. With no one in D.C. government assigned to set FOIA policy (nor any central oversight in the Council, either), each agency decided how much processing to do: some kept up, others did almost nothing.

For new requests, the Council in December 2020 reimposed the standard deadline, effective in January 2021, with a few more weeks allowed to process the backlog.

The new report shows five agencies that still let much FOIA work slide in the rest of 2021, contributing two-thirds of the total (Departments of Energy & Environment, Police, Consumer & Regulatory Affairs, Employment Services and the Mayor’s Office).

The Coalition reported earlier a jump also in undecided appeals (requesters’ petitions for the mayor’s independent review of agency denials of records). That figure reached over 300 by February 2022, according to pre-hearing answers from the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel before their performance oversight session with the Council. The new data report shows the office did close 50 as not needing legal review (agency non-response was the subject of many appeals in 2020 and 2021). But the office put everything else aside, actually deciding only a handful of appeals in 2021. See Coalition blog post on testimony to the Council on the need for action (and resources) to rebuild the appeal system that has essentially broken down.