Vol. IV, No. 1
FOIA Focus: Rebecca H. Lima
When Congress enacted the 1974 amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, federal agencies saw a new era in public disclosure dawning and in many instances made conscious decisions to place the responsibility for burgeoning FOIA work within offices of public affairs. An example is the Department of Transportation, which in 1974 was still a relatively new federal agency, and where department-level FOIA work was made the responsibility of the Office of Public Affairs, a highly visible arm of the Office of the Secretary.
Rebecca H. Lima, now the Freedom of Information Officer for the Department of Transportation, was the administrative Officer for DOT's Office of Public Affairs in the mid-1970's and it was on her desk that the FOIA responsibility landed.
"It worked out as a collateral duty for awhile," she says. "Then, well, it just took off. Publicity about the Act played a large part in the take-off. What happened here was that first I hired an assistant. Then I hired a second one . . . . It just seems to keep on. No matter what happens with the agency's programs, our work remains."
Rebecca Lima had come to the department in its early days in the late 1960's. Fresh from college, she held a series of jobs that led, in time, to her administrative position.
Today, Ms. Lima heads an office with an attorney, a FOIA staff officer, and a secretary. The office handles access requests directed to the Office of the Secretary or to DOT's Inspector General, handles all issue-related requests which cut across DOT component lines, and also develops FOIA policy positions and statements for the department as a whole.Among Components
Among DOT's various components, responsibility for FOIA work is delegated to different offices. Public Affairs officers handle FOIA for the Urban Mass Transportation Administration and the Research and Special Programs Administration; management analysts do the FOIA work at the Federal Highway Administration, the Coast Guard, the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, and the Maritime Administration; legal officers handle FOIA matters at the Federal Railroad Administration and at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; and at the FAA, FOIA work is decentralized and is handled by regional offices and by records officers at headquarters.
Ms. Lima says that DOT's decision to place FOIA responsibility within the Office of Public Affairs was made in part because there was recognition that "public affairs personnel have a greater sensitivity to the needs of the public and can better balance competing interests. Then, too, we wanted to give FOI A greater visibility . . . I work for the director of public affairs and she works directly for the Secretary."
In an attempt to personalize her FOIA work, Ms. Lima refuses to assign numbers to requesters. "These are people, not numbers," she says. "And we don't use form letters. Sure, there is some standard language, but each requester receives an originally-composed letter written at terminals near or at our desks."
The Office of the Secretary has an automated office system that is used for communication and management purposes. It includes word processors in place of typewriters. "And these terminals are outfitted with several other special systems," Ms. Lima explains. If I need to check someone's appointment calendar, I can do it right from here. I don't have to call to find out if someone's free to see me. I can 'copy' my staff with material. send material around the building by electronic mail, send messages to others on the system . . . . This makes a lot of difference in our work."
Ms. Lima foresees that the system could be expanded to cover FOIA correspondence tracking, which could be valuable to an office such as hers which handles between 300 and 400 requests a year. Of these, few are routine. Many involve hot transportation issues, deregulation, law enforcement audits, or safety questions. "And highway issues. We seem to always get highway issues at this level," she says.
Much of the office's work is in the FOIA Exemption 4 area. Ms. Lima says the first move that she or her staff makes in an Exemption 4 case is to get the records and the contract from the contracting office. "Then I pick up the phone and find out who can speak for the submitter. We inform submitters that there has been a FOIA request for their material and give them a period of time in which to respond to us in writing giving their reasons for not wanting material released.
"We get into some real fights with submitters and we have to overrule them sometimes. But we haven't been sued yet."
Ms. Lima observes that on this type of request. she can rarely meet the statutory 10-day time period. "This type of request is just too complex to get through in 10 days. I can't believe that Congress had these types of requests in mind when the 10-day deadline was established."Revising Regulations
DOT currently is engaged in reviewing its FOIA regulations, which are the responsibility of Ms. Lima's office. Revisions will include establishment of Exemption 4 processing practices and, after some study of agency-wide and government-wide costs, Ms. Lima has proposed raising the duplication fee to 20 cents per page and establishing a tiered fee schedule for professional and clerical search time.
"These are nuts and bolts changes . . . the kind of things you need after seven years of operation," she says. "But overall it's important that our regulations -- and particularly our fees -- be more realistic."
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