From the Spring 2008 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 19.
The genesis of the The Ithaca Journal’s Freedom of Information efforts starting with an armed robbery in December 2006 in which the newspaper had trouble getting information from the police.
Despite the police department’s pledge that it would develop a more effective media policy in response to the incident, months went by where the Journal did not have access to basic arrest information, criminal complaints and activity logs that are, by state law, open to the public.
The string of strained communications between the paper and the police department instigated the Journal’s FOIL efforts in early April, according to managing editor Bruce Estes.
“The turnaround time on obtaining the FOIL requests was about 10 days because the records had to be reviewed in the city attorney’s office so exempted information could be redacted,” Estes said. “FOIL is a good tool for obtaining information, but it is a lousy tool for meeting a deadline.”
Reporter Raymond Drumsta said filing the requests day in and day out was largely procedural, and that he formed relationships with the clerks at the attorney general’s office whom he communicated with every day.
“I had my moments of despair,” Drumsta said. “But now I know that [the city employees] were experiencing the same kind of frustrations as we were. This solution they came up with eased everything unbelievably.”
Two pivotal meetings in September — one between Ithaca residents and the police and another between the city’s attorney general and Journal’s editors — provided the necessary impetus for the city to realize it needed to revamp its system to better convey public information to its citizens.
Acting police chief Ed Vallely said the department sought out the employees from the city’s information technology department for guidance, and they suggested an electronic system.
The project began because of the complaints, he said, but now it has helped the department revamp its entire records division to be almost entirely paperless.
In addition to providing residents and the media with more transparency, it also requires no extra work to maintain and has been a huge cost-saving transition, Vallely said. The paper-based system has been in place since he started at the department 30 years ago.
“This e-blotter is an amazing thing,” Vallely said. “It morphed from a simple 24-hour report to a complete restructure of the way our records division works. We are publishing on a daily basis everything from barking dogs to towing away cars — no matter how petty or how major.” —AH