Police officials say statistical reports that might help them analyze parking ticket management are either impossible to produce, through the system now used by Dukes County, or take weeks to get from county officials. That is one reason why they are pushing to employ new technology.
“This [new technology] lets us track in real time how many tickets we’ve written, how many have been paid,” Oak Bluffs police Chief Erik Blake said. “Right now, we’ve got to call the parking clerk’s office, and they’re busy.”
The Times sympathizes. The newspaper also found it difficult to get what are public records. The Times contacted the county parking department on September 14, in an effort to understand more about how the department works and to request public records. Though Martha’s Vineyard parking clerk Carol Grant was in the office, she would not come to the phone, and Ms. Grant did not return a message left for her.
In a followup call the next day, a Times reporter was told Ms. Grant had left for vacation.
The Times then asked treasurer Noreen Mavro-Flanders by e-mail for public records reflecting parking ticket revenue figures for the past five years.
In an e-mail reply, Ms. Mavro-Flanders said she would forward the request to Ms. Grant.
“I believe she has provided this information previously (maybe not to you), so she will have already done the research,” Ms. Mavro-Flanders wrote in the e-mail.
On September 27, Ms. Grant e-mailed the Times, in response to the message forwarded by Ms. Mavro-Flanders. She included a letter template, in the form of a letter written by someone requesting public records, agreeing to costs and a time frame for her response.
“I understand that the County is charging research and compilation fee (hourly rate of keeper of records) if it takes more than one hour to research and prepare the information and/or a duplication fee (if over 20 pages — 20 cents per page for all copies and 50 cents per page for all computer print outs; cost of CDs etc.), unless the county manager waives the fees in advance,” the letter template stated.
Questions in writing
In an attempt to narrow the scope of the request for public records and save unnecessary work, The Times contacted the department by phone on September 27. Again, Ms. Grant refused to take the call. A Times reporter insisted that she come to the phone. Ms. Grant took the call, but refused to answer even the most rudimentary questions over the phone. For example, she was asked if she handled parking tickets for all the Island towns.
“By law, I don’t believe I have to answer your questions I’ve answered five years ago,” Ms. Grant said. “I talked to you five years ago, you put this in the paper, the figures were wrong. You called me the county parking clerk, I am not the county parking clerk.” She said she did not contact The Times to point out the errors.
The Times later submitted 10 basic questions by e-mail, which were promptly answered in a return email.
Among the questions, The Times asked whether responding only to written questions from The Times is department policy. She responded that it is county policy.
In a phone interview this week, a Times reporter asked county manager Russell Smith when he had imposed the policy of requiring all questions in writing.
“I’m unfamiliar with that policy,” Mr. Smith said. “We usually ask people to put their questions in writing, especially if it’s a freedom of information request. I can’t force her to talk to the press. We get questions every day, public records requests, not that many. Generally it’s the newspapers.” He said he could not remember any requests from the Vineyard Gazette.
By contrast, Edgartown officials responded to a phone request from The Times by producing records the county routinely sends to the town, showing the monthly breakdown of income from parking tickets, the fees charged, and the net revenue. The records were faxed to The Times office 15 minutes after the request.
On October 4, based on Ms. Grant’s reply to the written questions, and documents received from the town of Edgartown, The Times was able to narrow the request for public records and sent an e-mail requesting reports on the payments made to towns, the cost of the processing software, the number of tickets written by each town, and the amount of uncollected fines from each town, dating back to July 1, 2010.
Ms. Grant responded to the request for public records with an estimate of time and costs to produce the records on October 7.
“I estimate the time to research, copy and e-mail information to you will take approximately 3 hrs @ $20.80 per hour. There will be approximately 100 copies @ .20 per copy. The balance of the reports will be via email. Approximate cost to complete this request is $82.40,” she wrote in the email. “Once I receive this signed request, I will begin research.”
On October 13, the Times filled out the public records request template, and submitted it by e-mail, agreeing to pay up to $90 for the requested public records.
As of publication time on Wednesday, October 19, the county had not produced the public records.