Freedom of Information Farce at PANYNJ
By Peter Samuel
It must be last year when the press people at the PANYNJ told us we had to file a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request for simple information about this authority's new toll system procurement - a close to $100 million project. We'd asked for the $-number of the four competing bids and the scoring of each bid by the various criteria used to evaluate them.
The choice of contractor was amazing. Even people who worked there were amazed they got the job!
The chosen company was the subject of much publicized complaints from several of its toll agency customers, the subject of litigation with two.
And at least two of the losing bidders - who didn't carry any of winner's baggage of unhappy customers - had very harsh words about the award. It was corrupt they said, a scandal. One said his company which on the face of it had a much better track record had bid many millions below the winner. The other claimed to be very close.
What were the facts?
What were the prices bid?
And how did the bids score on non-price criteria?
Only the PANYNJ itself could tell us that. No way. They flatly refused to tell us anything, on or off the record.
If they'd wanted to be open and transparent it would have taken someone at PANYNJ 20 or 30 seconds to find the stuff in a folder on their hard-drive and send it to me as an attached .doc, .pdf. xls or whatever.
There probably was a powerpoint prepared for the Authority's board of directors when they were asked to approve the award of the contract that would have contained everything I'd asked for. One .pptx as an attachment could have been emailed to me taking up less than a minute of someone's time.
Our only route was filing a Freedom of Information request.
Filing a freedom of information request however is like dealing with the IRS - infinitely complex, unpredictable, and a heap of rules and regulations you are expected to spend time mastering.
And the FOIA people at PANYNJ don't seem to know of the existence of email. They write you beautiful looking letters on beautiful paper, and send them via US Postal Service. The letters do everything but provide you the information you request - on which they stall. And stall. And stall.
The killer for us was a letter saying we'd be responsible for paying for the search time that might be spent by some FOIA bureaucrats searching in the files of the PANYNJ. Given that they write letters on beautiful parchment stationery with an IBM Selectric you fear that maybe they haven't yet discovered electronic files and that you'll be charged for whatever time someone chooses to take looking through cardboard file boxes in the attic of the PA bus terminal or somewhere.
I don't recall the $/hour figure quoted though I remember thinking it was quite substantial.
But the real killer was the prospect of being charged for any number of search hours they chose to bill for. If they really don't want to release information the last place they'll go to is the guy who has it at his fingertips.
Plus they'd already managed to stall for several months, so the whole story was getting old. That was early this year.
But we're still getting letters from the FOIA administrator, each pretending to want to provide the information.
There must have been half a dozen, quaint in their fine print on parchment and with his signature in nice ink pen. The latest letter tells us we still have time before they close their file on our request.
It isn't clear from the latest letter what more we're supposed to do.
To find that out we'd have had to have filed all the previous letters. We tossed 'em all, intending to write a small item here about the extravagance of PANYNJ stationery, and their quaint letter writing habit, but never getting around to it.
The last letter we returned to the FOIA bureaucrat with the message written across the beautiful parchment in ballpoint: 'STOP WRITING LETTERS. JUST SEND US THE STUFF.'
And added our email address.
Then we had to search to find a USPS stamp. We hardly ever use them anymore. We found a stamp with the Liberty Bell on it but, oddly, no cent value. Or is it a dollar by now?
The lasting impression we've drawn from the experience so far is that PANYNJ is a profoundly dishonest and dysfunctional behemoth. Now if they'll just send us the information we asked for we'll be happy to revise that opinion. And here's our offer. We'll pay PANYNJ $120/hour for their time for a 30 second job: one dollar. - editor.