Public Agency TAM Shrouds Itself In Secrecy

Why would a reasonable request for information be met with a rejection that a seasoned professional journalist deems "one of the worst....I've ever seen" [expletive deleted.]. There seems to be some smoke here, is there a fire?

Does TAM have something to hide?
Does TAM have something to hide?
Our very own Transportation Authority of Marin (TAM) would appear to be as secretive as the NSA - perhaps even more secretive given Edward Snowden has provided so much insight into the NSA in recent months. Shouldn't TAM be accountable to the Marin residents that it serves? Why is there such a need for secrecy? Now TAM has caught the eye of one of the region's leading investigative journalists.

A Simple Request for Emails from Just 4 Staff is Rejected

On January 23rd I sent a public records request to TAM requesting the emails from just 4 of it's employees for a 2 year defined time period. A week later on January 30th the County of Marin's counsel responded stating "we have determined that is us unduly burdensome on TAM". 

An IT administrator could export Outlook archives in a matter of minutes, perhaps an hour at most. Are the emails being sent so voluminous, or so secretive that they cannot simply be shared?

These are public employees paid for by the taxpayer, who are serving us. Why would they not provide visibility of how they are serving us unless they have something to hide?

While I asked for the emails of just 4 TAM employees the response made it sound as if I'd asked for the records of a large department and my request "accounts for one-third of TAM's staff".  So does this mean if I send a request for the email of just one person from an organization with three staff it should be rejected on those grounds?

Why are These Emails Important?

Many residents continue to be puzzled by transportation decisions - decisions now being tightly linked to land use and housing policy - decisions resulting in plans, zoning and building of high density housing that frequently is opposed by the majority of residents.

So I'm puzzled - I want to better understand how transportation funding works and how it's being linked to these housing projects - ostensibly based on "transit oriented development". Do I know exactly which words to look for? - no, because planning is an area filled with jargon and an alphabet soup of acronyms and government agencies.  I could end up asking for repeated requests each time I learn a new acronym.

Second Request

So on January 10th I tightened my request.  I focused on just 2 - that's right , just 2 members of TAMs staff. (perhaps they will object because that's an entire sixth of their organization!). I further tightened the request focusing on a period of approximately 4 months and tightening it to just 13 specific recipients and 2 public agencies.

Second Rejection

I was wrong - this time they stated that I had not "presented a reasonably focused and specific request". It seems to me that someone is making up the rules to fit their own convenience. It seems that accountability and transparency is not a priority to this agency. Something is amiss. 

How Can You Help?

Already I am getting insightful advice from journalists such as Thomas Peele, an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group. If you're leading an agency and you're not following the rules or serving the public then you really don't want to be catching Thomas' attention. Thomas has won more than 50 journalism awards, for long-term investigations of government corruption - to clarify not 50 articles, 50 awards.

On seeing the second rejection Thomas' eyes were really opened. He makes public record requests routinely for the newspapers and stated "that's one of the worst [reasons for rejection] I've ever seen". [expletive deleted].

Questions are arising that maybe there is a story here and Thomas pointed me in a number of constructive directions. I've started to fill him in on a number of things - stay tuned.

Second I've brought in the First Amendment Coalition. A national organization, they happen to be based right here in San Rafael, they have already been in contact and are providing direction on next steps.

Third I've been in contact with the Marin Independent Journal that has been making an increasing focus on housing and transportation stories of late - most recently in Dick Spotswood's excellent piece Transit Dependent Growth is Greenwash Growth in Marin.

Finally you too can help. If you have 30 seconds please send an email to Diane Steinhauser, executive president of TAM: mailto:DSteinhauser@tam.ca.gov 

Simply ask what emails or records you would like to see, or better yet reinforce my request stating something such as the following:

"I'm a Marin taxpayer, I expect TAM as an agency that I pay for to be accountable and respond to reasonable requests. Please respond to Richard Hall's public records request submitted on January 30th"

Where there's Smoke...

Given this rejection is deemed one of the most unreasonable rejections by someone who makes a career of public records requests TAM has now created quite a little storm of controversy for itself. I would suggest that TAM responds in quick order - denying accountability as the high density housing issues heat up in the press is going to attract a great deal of attention.

What Else Can You Do?

If you share my interest in this information, why not send a request to Diane like I have done. It need only take 30 seconds. Just mail DSteinhauser@tam.ca.gov and ask to see emails that you want to see and request that the response is also sent to Richard Hall. 

An email only takes 30 second to write - but a successful request could really help enlighten us as to what is occurring in Marin with regard to transportation and housing, particularly high density housing.

Go on - compose an email to Diane, you know you want to...after all we're all paying her salary - does TAM have something to hide?

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Trish Boorstein February 06, 2014 at 12:39 PM
And Novato wants to do business with this agency?? Actually I should restate this question. Novato was volunteered to participate in a Transportation study with TAM which would result in our community being designated as a "LOW-INCOME COMMUNITY" for a pittance of money. Which councilmember decided this for Novato? Linda Jackson of TAM at Tuesday night's city meeting would not say. This transparency issue seems common policy. There are so many wrong things with this, but one of them, is that all low-income areas would have to be identified or mapped as part of the study. TAM is willing to expose where all low-income people live and not anything about themselves. The other really bad two things is that this councilmember did not get Council approval nor public input which would have happened had the item been brought to Council for a vote. Nevertheless, TAM on the 29th of January files a legal notice in the IJ for a RFP (I believe this is a Report For Project) asking for bids from contractors. I have to stop, I'm getting sick...
Eleanor Sluis February 07, 2014 at 12:31 AM
No Strings Attached? Uncanny politics by the Transportation in cahoots with /OBAG / ABAG authorities are now running amuck with ambiguities confusing the public and the council and being hidden by the City of Novato and the transportation agency. For example, now there is another new project for spending another $ 3 million $$$,$$$ tax dollars and saying there are no strings attached. That tax dollars’ project is to meld/mix/ combine all low-income residents of canal area in San Rafael with Marin City and all of Novato in a program from the transportation authority to tell the residents what is needed. Yet, I think that many prefer money for education, jobs, and cars. A curious fact is that a few years ago, the transportation authority took about $ 80, 000 dollars from the canal area in San Rafael and gave the tax dollars to the Smart train in the name of helping the low-income residents- is that what residents wanted and can the transportation agency be trusted? So, now there is pressure on the Novato council to approve this program being touted with no strings attached for Novato except to build 4 new low income units in addition to the 415 units –and at the same time be threatened that no federal or state money will come to Novato unless its accepts the decisions by this elite transportation bureaucracy with minimum input. The canal and Marin city can outvote Novato for funding. So, there are strings attached even for the $ 3-4 million $$$,$$$ tax dollars for a new bus hub. more...
Eleanor Sluis February 07, 2014 at 12:39 AM
. Again, with the new program ( costs unknown) combining the canal area in San Rafael with Marin City and Novato as one area and if the funds for the transportation program are not accepted by the city ( note: the transportation agency makes the rules in doling out federal, state, and county tax dollars) then no millions of our hard earned dollars will be available in the future, according to Novato’s community developer and the transportation authority. All or most of the federal and funds are connected with building higher densities Plan Bay Area/ OBAG/ transportation authority adding costs of new maintenance and personnel for the residents in our rural town. These agencies do not pay for added expenses. Novato is being a political pawn with no leverage in new funding. The new deal ( suspected con) is there will be no money forthcoming for sidewalks and paths and bus hubs instead for SMART and the developers of higher density if Novato does not accept the apparent scam of so called no strings attached program/dictate. Is the city being sold the Brooklyn Bridge? Yet, strings were attached to the recent grant. In order to get this grant of Novato, (the $ 800,000 $$,$$$ thousand tax dollars) was threatened that unless the Housing Element was to be signed, sealed, and delivered to the state in January or there would be no grant. Threats ran the day. And now Politics of the Transportation / OBAG authority are running rampant with ambiguities. It is scaring the Novato City council into an uncomfortable position. These two projects have hardly any public involvement. The absurd sounding, new $ 3 $$$, $$$ million project which Mayor Lucan and councilman Kellner seem to be in favor of is that they believe that there are no strings attached. The new $ 3, 000,000 million tax dollar project to combine the Canal district of San Rafael, Marin City of Sausalito with majority of Novato designated as low income will be connected to transportation and higher densities and obligated to vote for what the agency wants with almost no input. Novato city council apparently needs support by the voters to decide what our priorities are instead of being treated like kindergartners by the transportation authority and city staff with threats. Little publicity is out there for these projects and no voting by the public and little discussion is allowed -only three minutes at a city meeting. The council is trying to sort through this mess, but the staff appears to hinder it with their management practices. Support the council to call the illegal bluff by the transportation authority and come up with a better priority plan with no connection to building even higher densities in our 30% ( more or less) already low-income, deserving higher wages, veterans, women, men, seniors, disabled, and families living in town. Can the city council resolve these threats and ambiguities in due time, given a one week time threat by the agency, without being forced into a new bureaucratic political board with the Canal and Marin City?
Keith Lammi February 07, 2014 at 04:57 AM
the patch is seriously censoring Our news!!! Who cares about the desperate National enquirer spam while they delete the article about Tuesday's city council meeting and also the comment containing San Rafael's response letter refusing to work with TAM???
Richard Hall February 07, 2014 at 09:42 AM
@Keith - I don't think Patch censors at all. Articles on Patch are syndicated to the different cities. I had a similar reaction about a comment until I discovered I was looking at the right article but in the wrong town.
Tina McMillan February 07, 2014 at 12:44 PM
Eleanor: Thea law that says you can't access state funds without conforming to other state laws isn't the issue. Of course we needed to get the Housing Element done on time and approved. We had seven years in which to do it. If a city can't keep current with a seven year deadline then they aren't doing their jobs.
Tina McMillan February 07, 2014 at 12:46 PM
Eleanor: There is no guarantee of money associated with CBTP. It is a bad plan for many reasons. You are mixing to many issues in the same pot.
Eleanor Sluis February 07, 2014 at 03:48 PM
Tina- yes- it is all related- like minestrone soup and all connected to the transportation authority threats to not release funds unless the city complies to its directions. No state authority came to Novato and made the threats. It was from the city council and staff attributing the threats to the transportation agency. So, Partridge Knolls, Atherton Acres, and Landing Court/ Clauson Court lost out because they needed more time to mitigate land use. No, seven years was not enough time unless you are a married man and have the seven year itch and love Marilyn Monroe. But in reality, more than 8000 residents ( need info.) in those areas are concerned about building of high densities and increased expenses for their families to pay for increased taxes for maintenance and traffic and exploding populations in schools. Yet, they were summarily dismissed as not important enough to be heard. You betcha; it’s all connected. Transportation Authority is threatening Novato again in a heavy handed way. It’s the threats that are worrisome on the one hand, and on the other hand it’s the process of combining all low-income area residents of Novato with the Canal area and Marin City into a small committee to decide transportation needs, while leaving out those who pay the bill with our taxes. This is segregating our neighborhoods into the haves and have nots and is not the best social engineering plan that the transportation authority proposes. The Canal area and Marin city will be able to out vote Novato as to need assessments. It seems that transportation authorities now out vote Novato’s one vote for input and improvements as does ABAG. Creating a climate of working towards a better community in all of Marin involves more cooperation between city councils and the county. This is not happening.
Tina McMillan February 07, 2014 at 06:42 PM
Eleanor: There are no threats. Just a need for the council to acknowledge that too little is known about CBTP and that by design it takes away local control. Since there are no guarantees that Novato will get the money it wants for the projects it needs, it isn't worth the risk. If you read the PDF of the accounting practices it is a "Fiscal Net Negative" Bob Ratto read the accounting practices. I got through the first four pages when I realized it was a way for government to overthink and make overly complex a process that doesn't need TAM or any outside agency to be involved. It would cost far less if the state gave the money to the cities throughout California and said this is a contribution toward your top five urgent land use/transportation projects. I am sure staff knows what is most broken and in need of fixing. Instead TAM, which was rejected by the city of San Rafael, is coming to Novato, at the last possible minute, to try and get themselves a new city on the hook to justify their existence. TAM is run through a JPA agreement. That means you go to their website and you can't tell who funds the agencies salaries. JPA's are typically regional. Even though we have city council members on the TAM board, we don't have to accept money with strings, such as labels like Low Income Community.
Reginald "Rex" Henderson February 13, 2014 at 03:29 AM
Jeezuz, Eleanor - how about the abbreviated version next time?!


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