Article from Quad City Times, Sunday, March 14, 2010
One Bettendorf resident requested information about the city budget, the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center and a series of meetings involving city council members.
A fair contracting organization made six requests to analyze pay and contract awards in Davenport and Rock Island.
Law firms regularly submit requests to the city of Moline for police reports.
A check by the Quad-City Times of the past six months of public records requests made to local cities and school districts showed that it’s not just journalists making requests for information from our local governments. Attorneys, businesses and residents do, too.
The requests are commonly known as FOIAs, after the federal Freedom of Information Act. Each state also has its own open records and meetings laws.
“Traditionally, this issue has been discussed in the public arena as a journalism issue,” said Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. “That the vast majority of requests for public information are from non-journalists, either from the business sector or private citizens, is really interesting. That certainly shows the value of such laws and the importance of having wide access to government information.”
The Times filed FOIA requests with the cities of Davenport, Bettendorf and Moline and the school districts of Davenport, Bettendorf and Rock Island-Milan. The newspaper sought the last six months of FOIA requests filed by others.
The documents were sought in conjunction with Sunshine Week, which begins today. Sunshine Week is a national initiative led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.
The Bettendorf School District reported that no requests were filed during the six months, while the city of Moline reported 136 requests. The city of Davenport had 12 requests for documents, while the city of Bettendorf had four. The Davenport School District reported three requests — all by the Times — while the Rock Island-Milan School District tallied eight.
The reason Moline had so many is because the city requires people seeking a police report to file a public records request. All but 17 of Moline’s FOIAs were for such reports.
“Many of ours are from law firms seeking the names of people who were in accidents so they can solicit them,” said Maureen Riggs, deputy city attorney for Moline. Many of the police report requests also came from insurance companies.
The Indiana-Illinois-Iowa Foundation for Fair Contracting made five requests to the Rock Island-Milan School District and one to the city of Davenport. The organization sought documents that showed how contracts were awarded and whether the contractors fairly paid their workers.
“Our organization gets contacted by a public body themselves, or from contractors bidding on projects who don’t believe that all of the contractors have complied with bidding regulations or state and federal laws,” said Mark Poulos, executive director. “Often times a worker may come to us and say, ‘I performed work for X contractor, and I was supposed to be paid a prevailing wage and I wasn’t.’ We get the certified payrolls and do an audit and make a determination.”
The key to getting what you want is follow-up, Poulos said. “Anybody can send a piece of paper to someone asking for information, but if you don’t put it on the calendar and follow up with a second letter that says ‘You failed to respond, what are you going to do about it?’ you may have a problem. It’s all about communication.”
Poulos once encountered a situation where a city wanted to charge him $700 for documents. “We just brought in a portable scanner and scanned them all ourselves — hundreds of documents. It saved us a lot of money.”
Some requests examined by the Times came from businesses seeking information about how a competitor won a contract. For example, American Traffic Solutions Inc. of Arizona sought documents from the city of Davenport relating to the awarding of a contract to Redflex, also of Arizona, for the speed and red light photo enforcement cameras.
Neopost of Carrolton, Texas, a worldwide provider of mailing equipment, sought from the city of Davenport a copy of the original purchase order for the postage equipment the city bought or leased from Pitney Bowes.
Aitchison and Vick, a law firm in Portland, Ore., asked the city of Davenport to provide exhaustive information pertaining to how police officers are compensated. The firm represents police unions during contract negotiations.
Michael Meloy, a Bettendorf attorney representing the owner of A Chorus Line, an adult club engaged in a legal battle with the city of Davenport over the business’s cabaret and liquor licenses, requested from the city all e-mails between his client, Nadeem Mazhar, and city officials.
“Sometimes people will use FOIA requests instead of going through the discovery process,” said Jackie Holecek, deputy city clerk.
The Quad-City Times requested all documents and e-mails regarding the city of Bettendorf’s practice of so-called “three on three” informal city council meetings. The Times also had asked the Davenport School District for documents from the human resources, special education and equity and assessment departments.
A KWQC-TV reporter requested all fire inspection reports and ensuing correspondence about the Phoenix restaurant at 111 W. 2nd St., Davenport. An Associated Press reporter asked for the payroll records of two Davenport police officers.
“Journalists sometimes don’t realize that they have easier access to information than the average citizen,” Richardson said. “It’s not that they have additional rights, because they don’t, but maybe they know the officials because they work with them on a daily basis and they know the ropes, and they know what to ask. They’re given information more readily.”
Officials often advise taking more informal routes to getting information before filing a written request, no matter who you are.
Richardson noted that the average person may not be aware of their rights concerning public records. She has fielded calls and e-mails from citizen activists around the state when communities conduct searches for superintendents or other high-profile jobs. “They’re concerned because they feel the process is being done behind closed doors.” She said she also has received calls and e-mails from people who have had a tough time gaining access to police reports.
One such citizen activist that has made FOIA requests locally is Greg Gackle, a Bettendorf resident who unsuccessfully challenged Mike Freemire for mayor in 2007. He asked for the “three on three” city council meeting information that the Times also requested. He also requested documents pertaining to the city’s budget and the budget for the Quad-Cities Waterfront Convention Center.
Gackle, a public relations professional and former journalist, said the city of Bettendorf has been extremely helpful and prompt when he has made his requests. “I’m not sure the general public is all that interested in these things, but I find it interesting to look at these documents. I think people care about issues if they’re informed about them.”
Despite open records and meetings laws, some people are met with resistance when attempting to gain access to public records. “I do get phone calls from people that go in and ask for information and are met with hostility. Some public agencies are suspicious — such as ‘Who are you and why do you want this information?’”
She added: “Part of it is that some government employees treat public records like they’re their own. Some education would certainly help.”
The other big hurdle is fees, Richardson said. “There is no standardization across the state on what government agencies can charge. All the law says is that the fee has to be ‘reasonable.’”
What’s more, she said the legislature continues to add exceptions to what can be requested. “There was only a handful of exceptions when the law was enacted back in the 1970s; today there are 61.”
"It's kind of scary because you don't want to get a ticket, but it's great for safety,” driver Marie Lampe said, “I think if you break the law, you should get punished for that.”
Red light cameras monitor busy intersections with a history of traffic problems. The goal is to make people drive more cautiously and cut down on the number of accidents and injuries. Violations caught by the cameras come with a fine, but do not appear on your driving record.
"There are a lot of cars that do a lot of illegal things,” driver Fredie Hill said.
Despite their benefits, plenty of people remain skeptical. Others have privacy concerns.
"I think big brother's watching us,” driver Ed Mulligan said, “I think they’re good if they’re for safety reasons, but if it’s for financial gain for the city and the government to make more money, I think it’s wrong.”
Cedar Rapids Police insist the cameras are not simply money-making devices. Instead, they argue the equipment is just another way to keep people safe. "All we're monitoring is criminal behavior. If you're not a criminal and you're not doing anything illegal, you don't have anything to worry about,” Sergeant Cristy Hamblin said.
A company called PhantomPlate claims its product will make your license plate invisible to the camera's eye. The company says all you need to do is coat your license plate with its PhotoBlocker spray and the cameras can't catch you.
"Everybody's looking for a shortcut to get away with something," Hamblin said, "If it's too good to be true, it probably is.”
We tested the spray with help of the Cedar Rapids Police Department. Instructions say to remove the plate from the vehicle and coat it four times. Just to be safe, we sprayed it five times. Then, we re-attached the plate and triggered the cameras.
Turns out the product did not shield the plate from the camera. Police could still read the letters and numbers. PhantomPlate also sells a plate cover that claims to block the cameras as well. It didn't work, either.
"It's not the ticket or the money that we're looking for. What we're really trying to do is save people from being injured," Hamblin said.
"I feel bad if people get taken for that money," Hamblin said.
Looks like these gimmicks really are too good to be true.
"I have a hard time figuring out why people are so worried. I don't have anything to hide," driver Vivek Sharma said, “I don’t think I’ll be spraying my truck.”
Therefore, it seems the best way to avoid a ticket just might be to stop speeding and running red lights.
Last year, 28 percent of all red-light-camera citations issued by Columbus were sent to a collection agency, up from 12 percent in 2007. Part of any funds collected now would go to the collection agency and Redflex, which operates the cameras for the city. The poor economy might be one reason why drivers aren't paying, said Deputy Public Safety Director George Speaks. A $95 ticket is a big hit. But once your ticket is sent to a collection agency, the fine grows to $120. If you don't pay, the city will send you a notice. After 90 days, your case is sent to Capital Recovery, a collection agency. Running a red light is a civil infraction that doesn't add points to your license.
Capital Recovery collects about 17 percent of the delinquent violations the city sends its way, said Craig Klein, the company's president. He said the national collection rate in civil cases such as these is less than 10 percent. "The only way to attack it is to file lawsuits," Klein said. But that would likely cost the city more than it's worth, said City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer. If the problem grows, he'll consider it. Speaks said city officials are discussing reporting scofflaws to credit agencies.
Stephanie Palmer, a victims advocate in Pfeiffer's office, has three unpaid tickets. Two offenses were captured by the camera at Livingston and Fairwood avenues. The tickets say Palmer didn't stop completely before turning on red. "I'm not sure if I didn't come to a complete stop," she said. "Usually I'm pretty good." In all, there are 169 individuals, companies and agencies with three or more outstanding citations, totaling close to 900 unpaid tickets.
The biggest offender is the holding company for Avis and Budget rental cars. That company is responsible for 144 unpaid tickets. University Area Commissioner Ahmed Ebady has five unpaid tickets. He said contractors who maintain his residential properties and drive vehicles registered in his name must be responsible. "If the city is going to come after me for a moving violation, let them come up with proof who was driving," Ebady said.
Speaks said the cameras reduce crashes. He said right-angle crashes have fallen by 73 percent at the 18 intersections where cameras have been installed. "The system works," he said.
Involved in a fender bender or accident and you need to get the red light camera video as evidence?
In a nutshell municipalities have different requirements for maintaining and keeping video. The are no current standards and each city uses variations of technology that differ in terms of features and functions to capture and store video. Some cities have setup video systems to record continuously and the resulting video can be recorded locally or it can be streamed to the local Police department. It really all depends on the city and the application of the cameras. If that city uses continuous video we recommend contacting the police department directly for that information.
Automated enforcement in Virginia is a civil penalty. The automated enforcement fine is $50 and there are no court costs, no negative DMV points, no insurance notifications, and no late fees associated with a violation. There are major differences in the penalty associated with automated enforcement and officer enforcement. An officer issued summons for disregarding a red light is up to a $350 fine; the prepayable offense is $100. Court costs do apply to an officer issued summons. There are -4 points associated with the signal violation and it stays on the driver’s DMV record for 3 years.
There is a lot of disparity with the use of photo enforcement throughout the United States. The State of Virginia has approached the implementation of photo enforcement from three areas: Engineering, Education, and Enforcement. VDOT must approve each intersection for the use of enforcement cameras in the State of Virginia. In other words, if the engineering is not correct, the use of camera enforcement at the intersection will not be approved in Virginia. This process includes a standardization of yellow and all red signal timing.
The primary focuses in our PHOTOSafe program is education and awareness. We have given over 200 presentations to members of our community and established a web site that includes an interactive online presentation that explains the program, enforcement camera locations, and signal timing and coordination information. Virginia requires that photo enforcement warning signs be installed within 500 feet of the enforced intersection. Please visit our web site and give us some feedback on it. The address is vbgov.com/photosafe.
We view enforcement as the last part of our intersection safety equation. The State of Virginia has a .5 second amnesty period that prevents the cameras from activating for enforcement until the light has been red for ½ second. Our police department recognizes the need to use a combination of police officers and cameras to reduce red light running at the high crash locations.
Thanks in advance for updating our photo enforcement information. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the use of photo enforcement in the State of Virginia.
I have recently started using Google Buzz for Mobile on my Android phone and have become a big fan of its potential. I think its quite unique and more useful if you are only interested in regional data. However, there currently isn't a on Google Buzz to hear updates from other drivers or alerts around me without picking up the phone and looking at it. See the picture above which is a sample Google Buzz layer on Google Maps screen shot. I think buying Aha Mobile and integrating the technology into their system would further advance the technology and make it safer for drivers.
Palo Alto-based Aha Mobile have created Aha Radio, a free mobile application that transfers a broad range of web-based information into a customizable radio experience. Aha has created a unique backend platform that safely filters, prioritizes, and delivers Web-based information to drivers. Everything from instant personalized traffic reports to an audio translation of your Facebook wall and from up-to-the minute episodes of your favorite podcasts to personalized restaurant finders. They have also created the first driver-to-driver network similar to the old CB Radio. This allows users to listen to everything from real-time traffic reports to Twitter and Facebook updates as well as red light camera location alerts, without the added stress of fumbling with a device while driving. Aha Mobile is also a licensee of PhotoEnforced.com's database of locations and will soon be using the data to give drivers verbal alerts of cameras locations near them. I think thes definitely solves the distracted driver problems. Check out the demonstration video above.