MBTA responds to my public records request

Last month, I sent the MBTA a public records request, trying to obtain more information about how aware they are of the problem of air quality problems in the passenger compartments of their buses, and what they are doing about the problem.

The Massachusetts Public Records Law requires “custodians of records” like the MBTA to respond within ten days to such requests. It took the MBTA 26 days to respond, which they did only after I appealed to the supervisor of records in the Secretary of State’s office Correction: I mailed my appeal to the Secretary of State’s office on February 11, and I received the response below from the MBTA on February 12, so it appears that they although they were quite late in responding to my request, they did respond before my appeal was brought to their attention. The job of the supervisor of records is essentially to force custodians to obey the law. This is necessary because custodians regularly violate the public records law until the supervisor is involved, and sometimes even then. This sorry state of affairs persists because there are no penalties for violating the law (stupid!).

Anyway, here is the response I received from the MBTA yesterday (click here to see it in a separate window), followed by the letter I sent back to them this morning.


February 13, 2013

Dear [elided],

I have received your letter of February 11, regarding my public records request, number [elided].

For clarity and convenience, I repeat here the items in my initial request, numbered rather than bulleted for ease of reference:

  1. All complaints and inquiries received by the MBTA from passengers in the past year, through any medium including but not limited to telephone, U.S. Mail, facsimile, electronic mail, Web form submission, and Twitter, concerning air-quality issues (e.g., engine fumes) in MBTA buses. If such complaints and inquiries are consistently logged in a single computerized tracking system, then a spreadsheet, report or other document produced from said system, including the details of the relevant complaints, is sufficient and indeed preferable for satisfying this request.
  2. Any databases, spreadsheets, studies, reports, memoranda, etc., prepared in the past year by MBTA employees or contractors working on behalf of the MBTA, for the purpose of analyzing or aggregating data about air-quality issues in MBTA buses.
  3. All records of inspections and maintenance performed on MBTA buses in the past year to address air-quality issues in MBTA buses that were either identified internally by the MBTA or brought to its attention by passengers.
  4. All policies, manuals, and training materials pertaining to maintaining adequate air quality in MBTA buses, including but not limited to any regular air-quality testing performed in bus passenger compartments.
  5. The results of any air-quality testing performed in the passenger compartments of MBTA buses in the past year.
  6. All policies, manuals, and training materials pertaining to the handling of passenger complaints and inquiries about air-quality issues in MBTA buses.
  7. All documents provided by the manufacturers of MBTA buses pertaining to the maintenance of proper air quality in them, including but not limited to operational manuals, recalls, maintenance notifications, etc.
  8. Records of complaints, disability claims, etc. by drivers in the past year about illnesses which they claim were caused or exacerbated by air-quality issues in MBTA buses.

I want to make sure that the nature of my request is clear. I am researching indoor air quality (IAQ) issues inside the passenger compartment of MBTA buses, not issues related to the buses’ emissions into the surrounding environment. I am not, at this time, interested in any records related to such emissions, and therefore I expect that the the cost of searching, segregating, and/or duplicating such emissions records will not be included in the fees the MBTA requires to satisfy my request.

In my request, I asked you to “please provide a separate estimate for each bullet point.” You failed to do so, instead providing a single estimate for all bullet points after the first. I therefore must repeat this request: please provide me with a separate estimate of the cost of satisfying each item in my request, so that I can make an informed decision about which items to move forward with.

In your enumeration of the cost of satisfying my first item, you wrote, “230 Complaints-3 minutes per complaint”. Please clarify the meaning of that figure. Does that mean that there have been 230 complaints related to bus IAQ in the past year, or does that figure represent some larger body of complaints which will need to be searched to identify bus IAQ complaints?

In your letter, you provided an estimate of “Bullets 2 through 7,” but there were actually eight bullet points in my request. Please clarify whether your estimate actually included item 8 (“Records of complaints, disability claims, etc….”) or not.

The public records law requires the custodian of records to provide an hourly cost estimate based on the work being performed by the lowest-paid employee qualified to perform it. Please explain your reason for quoting an hourly rate of $30 for my first item but $40 for the other items.

The public records law requires the custodian of records to make records that are easily located and segregated available for examination on-site for no fee. I am sure that at least some of the items in my request, e.g., items 4 and 6, and possibly others as well, fall into this category. Please indicate which of the items in my request can be examined by me at an MBTA facility without paying for searching, segregation, or duplication.

I would like to add an additional item to my request, or if you wish you may treat this as a new, separate request under the public records law. Please tell me how many public records law requests the MBTA has received in 2013, the date on which each was received, and the date on which an initial response was sent. There should be no significant cost for satisfying this request, since there could not have been that many requests so far this year (mine, after all, was only the ninth) and all such requests are presumably handled through your office.

Please respond to this letter by email so we can avoid wasting additional time, paper, and money corresponding by postal mail while we continue to work out the details of my request.

Given that your response to my initial request was sent at least 16 days past the statutory deadline, I assume that you will respond quickly to this any any future correspondence.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Kamens


UPDATE: Later the same day, I sent the lawyer at the MBTA another email message because I realized I’d forgotten something in the first one:

Dear [elided],

I just realized that there was something I forgot to mention in my letter to you this morning which I would like to add now.

I assume that you must have some idea of what’s included in the 1,200-page estimate for the items in my request other than the first one, since with no idea of the content you could not have produced the estimate. Please provide to me the information from which the estimate is derived, i.e., whatever information you have now about the content, to help me decide whether it is worth paying for.

Thank you,

Jonathan Kamens

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One Response to “MBTA responds to my public records request”

  1. [...] A side effect of my attempts to get information from the MBTA about toxic fumes in the engine compartments of their buses (I will write more about that later, after a followup meeting I’ve been invited to by the MBTA) was my discovery that the MBTA is not terribly good at responding to public records requests within the time frame required by law. Since I view that as a serious problem in its own right, I attempted to shine some sunlight on it in my February 13 letter to the MBTA: [...]

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