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Metro’s secrecy highlight of Open Government Summit

dcogcadmin | March 30, 2015

  The failure to share information with the public after a fatal :smoke incident” in a Metro tunnel dominated discussion at the annual D.C. Open Government Summit March 17.

  Journalists, civic activists and D.C. government officials traded complaints and suggestions to make local government and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority more transparent. The Open Government Coalition sponsored the Sunshine Week event at the National Press Club.

  “We all know that there are problems,” said Denise Rucker Krepp, an advisory neighborhood commissioner from Capitol Hill. “WMATA doesn’t want this to be exposed; WMATA wants to hide.”

  One woman died and at least 84 people were hospitalized after smoke filled the tunnel near the L’Enfant Plaza station Jan. 12, 2015. Passengers on a stopped Yellow Line train were trapped in heavy smoke for more than 30 minutes before rescuers arrived.

  “It was very difficult after that to get information from Metro on what happened and what steps were being taken,” said Aaron Weiner, a Washington City Paper reporter. He added that because the transit system is so important to D.C., “bashing Metro has become one of our favorite pastimes” and WMATA “sometimes takes on a fortress mentality, which is: ‘we’re under siege, and we’re going to open the doors only as much as we have to.’ ”

  The Washington Post experienced similar problems getting information from WMATA after nine people died in 2009 when a Metro train crashed into a stopped train between the Fort Totten and Takoma stations. The Post tried to get government records related to that incident by filing Freedom of Information Act requests and from Metro under its Public Access to Records Policy, said Josh Podoll, a lawyer who represented the newspaper.

  In 2012, The Post requested records from the 2009 crash. Two years later, after WMATA denied the request, an unsuccessful administrative appeal, and the filing of a law suit, WMATA and the paper reached a settlement, according to Podoll. “I suppose you could call us the nuclear option,” he said. “When you’ve gone to WMATA, you couldn’t get anything; you’ve … gone through an appeal, … you still couldn’t get anything; then, that’s where we come in.”

  But not every person who requests information from WMATA has sufficient resources to overcome roadblocks the transit agency throws up. “From the perspective of … a citizen, … who’s going to wait two years? And then who’s going to hire counsel?”

  Moderator Chad Bowman said Metro declined the Coalition’s invitation to participate in the discussion.

  Unlike WMATA, the D.C. government “has made significant progress on its open government and FOIA efforts,” said Traci Hughes, D.C. Office of Open Government director. As an example, she cited establishment of a central online portal for D.C. FOIA requests.

  The web portal was one element of former Mayor Vincent Gray’s July 2014 Transparency, Open Government and Open Data Directive. Hughes said another provision required government agencies to prepare open government plans to increase transparency. The directive requires public bodies to live web stream their meetings when possible, she added.

  In the coming year, Hughes said, the Office of Open Government will focus on bringing more agencies into the central FOIA portal and improving to the online system for searching FOIA information.

  Local activists at the summit highlighted ways they and D.C. residents can use data city agencies are putting online.

  D.C. Action for Children demonstrated an interactive online map providing data about schools, demographics, children’s health and crime broken down by neighborhood. HyeSook Chung, executive director, urged parents and local officials to use the website to inform their decisions and “make change for children.” “Our work is [only] as good as how open the D.C. government data is,” Chung said, adding that It was difficult to obtain some of the data.

  Code for DC’s Justin Grimes demonstrated interactive maps and other online graphics created from D.C. government data. Projects include maps and guides about Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, school funding for at-risk students, election results, changes in school boundaries, school populations by neighborhood, and Capital Bikeshare availability by location and time-of-day. “When I have conversations with people, specifically policymakers that say ‘the tools that you are building are helping me make better decisions,’ I feel like that has a tremendous impact on the community,” Grimes said.

James Doubek is a journalism master’s degree candidate at American University.