9.28.2009

The Alice Swanson Ghost Bike: What really happened

As readers know, I've been following this story for a while. I've been able to track down what happened with regard to the August 28 removal of the Alice Swanson ghost bike at Connecticut and R Streets, NW. This is a lot of information, so bear with me.

On Wednesday August 19, Ed Grandis, the Executive Director of the Dupont Circle Merchants and Professionals Association (DC MAP) sent an email to Mark Bjorge at the District Department of Transportation. In this email, Grandis characterized the ghost bike as being in "significant disrepair" an "eye sore" that was "not a memorial." Grandis requested the removal of the bike on behalf of "several commercial property owners." Also copied on this email was DC MAP's board, including Susan Taylor (Church of Scientology), David Perruzza (JR's Bar and Grill), Jonathan J. ten Hoopen (Black Fox Lounge) and James McGlade (The Leather Rack). When asked via email, Grandis declined to comment for this story. Perruzza responded writing "I work on 17th street but from what I understand they removed it because it is in the way of pedestrian traffic."

On Thursday August 27, Andrew Huff, Mayor Fenty's Ward 2 Outreach Specialist sent an urgent request to DPW asking that the lock on the ghost bike be cut immediately. The email was sent at 7:33 PM and asked that the lock be cut before close of business on Friday. Huff said that it was "a Mayoral request and your assistance is greatly appreciated." The request did contain a note saying "DO NOT REMOVE OR THROW BICYCLE AWAY - JUST CUT THE LOCK AND LEAVE AT LOCATION. FAMILY MEMBERS WILL RETRIEVE BICYCLE TOMORROW."

At 8:20 PM, Jim Sebastian, who works on bicycle matters at DDOT, replied to Huff and DPW saying that Eric Gilliland at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association had located the key to the lock, and asked if the bike's removal could wait until Monday. Huff replied saying "[w]e can wait until Monday but not later." Huff the notified DPW that their services would not be needed.

On Friday, August 28, Earl Simpson at DPW reported that they had cut the lock on the bike. He told Anthony Duckett, Associate Administrator in DPW's Solid Waste Management Administration that the bicycle had been left at Cosi, "because we didn't want anyone to take it while its unlock (sic)."

On Monday, when the media began asking questions about the ghost bike's removal, there was much discussion within DPW, the Executive Office of the Mayor (EOM), and DDOT on how to respond. According to Nancee Lyons at DPW, the bicycle was removed via the abandoned bicycle policy, and not the sidewalk memorial policy. Had it been removed under the memorial policy, a 30-day notice would have been left. The public affairs campaign regarding the incident began to get muddled, as it was unclear whether the Mayor's Office or DPW would take the lead in responding.

I had asked DPW for an official comment on Monday, and internal communication between DPW and EOM revealed a bit of conflict. Mafara Hobson, Fenty's Director of Communications was unwilling to take the lead wanting "to leave the Mayor's name out of the matter." DPW tossed around the idea of sending me a comment explaining the bike's lock had been cut and it had been left in a secure location to prevent theft. I didn't receive an official comment until Tuesday, September 1. This email referenced only the 30-day policy, and extended condolences to Swanson's family. It was unsigned and provided no further information.

The most interesting part of the internal discussion was the consideration of an official memorial being placed for Alice Swanson. Sarah Latterner at the Mayor's Office arranged to call a meeting with all of the involved agencies, as well as WABA and Swanson's family. Francisco Fimbres at the Mayor's Office asked DDOT to "come prepared to suggest a memorial on the sidewalk. Be it a tree box structure with a bike and flowers + a little placard. WABA or family can pay, DDOT and EOM could support and help them make it happen."

Lyons, in an email to DPW Director Bill Howland, said "so now that the Mayor's office apparently asked for this to be removed, folks are apparently freaking out at the reaction. I don't think affixing a permanent memorial is the right way to go to appease just one family, do you?"

Monday afternoon Howland sent an email to City Administrator Neil Albert, Fenty's Chief of Staff Carrie Kohns, Hobson and DDOT Director Gabe Klein saying he was opposed to any permanent memorial to Alice Swanson. Albert and Hobson would agree, and the official public relations response would be to say that the official policy was that memorials are removed after 30 days and that the city is sorry for the family's loss. That would be the end of discussion on the matter.

What remains unknown is why this issue became such an urgent priority to the Mayor's office. DC MAP's request did not indicate there was an urgent need to remove the bicycle. These emails were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, however it does appear that Mayor Fenty's office withheld many documents. I sent separate FOIA requests to both DPW and EOM. DPW's response includes over 80 pages of emails, many that were sent from staff in Fenty's office. Many of those emails were NOT also included in the FOIA documents supplied by the Mayor's Office. I was provided with no documents that show how the matter moved from DDOT to EOM and why it became a priority. Also, there is still no information on what businesses approached DC MAP with the original request. This would not have been covered by the FOIA request.

If anything, this whole incident has revealed some tension and blame-passing between DPW and Fenty's office. Fenty's office demanded the prompt removal of the bike, and then essentially hung DPW out to dry. It's no surprise I received 80 pages of documentation from DPW and roughly 4 pages from Fenty's office. They fall back on the "30 day policy," however the memorial clearly remained for more than 30 days. DPW's communications indicate the bike wasn't removed under the 30 day policy, but rather under the abandoned bicycle policy.

Personally, I believe that the replacement memorial idea should not have been shot down so quickly. Had the city offered to help dedicate a treebox near the site, I don't believe the 22 ghost bike art project would have happened. Rather we would have had a small, unobtrusive memorial. From a political standpoint that would have been much better than the mess that unfolded. It would not have necessarily resulted in a "Pandora's Box" as the DPW chief called it. Clearly this memorial was allowed to remain beyond 30 days, so this was done on a case-by-case basis. Permanent memorials for tragedies in the future could also have been handled on a case-by-case basis. Having some plaques on some treeboxes is not unheard of, and would not clutter up the city.

32 comments:

  1. Use a newsmedia fee waiver:

    ...a representative of the news media affiliated with Why I Hate DC and this request is made as part of news gathering and not for a commercial use.

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  2. I'll attempt to appeal the fee. They classified my request as "other."

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  3. That would be a first, for a blog to be given member of the media status for purposes of FOIA. Good luck, I'll be interested in what they say.

    Metro basically told me that I don't have enough readers and that websites don't "disseminate" information to the public, they "make it available" and cited a CY2000 court case.

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  4. Wow. Thanks for going to all of the work for this.

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  5. Now that that's over can we go back to wall-to-wall Metro coverage?

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  6. Congrats, Dave, and good work. I have to say that you're turning this blog into essential reading for me.

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  7. Well then...

    Thanks. $2.00 donation sent.

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  8. Excellent job. Thank you!

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  9. Excellent job. Your reporting is on the money.

    One other point about community involvement: there was some sort of gathering of Alice's family and friends at the site several weeks before the removal of the ghost bike. It appeared to be a quiet memorial service. An ANC Commissioner approached a family member and asked about working together to find a way to establish some sort of permanent memorial. He gave the gentleman his card and was promised a call back. There was no callback, and another opportunity was missed.

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  10. Are you seriously asking for money? Honestly, I have refrained from commenting on this situation, but asking for money is getting out of hand. This entire series of postings should be a spoof on Stuff White People like. Not that Alice Swanson's death isn't a tragedy, but it is time to move on. The entire city doesn't need to deal with the clutter of a memorial to her for all eternity. Why not erect a monument for every single person who has ever died in the city somewhere? A line has to be drawn somewhere.

    This is an example of a cause that is important to a small number of people wasting public dollars.

    Your work is not "reporting". This is not real news. You wasted a lot of people's time in this quest for an answer that doesn't really matter in the end.

    Also, if you get over $65 in donations, what are you going to do with it? Donate to Alice's family, or keep it for yourself?

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  11. @DCResident So it's only news if NBC4 or ABC7 or WUSA9 cover it? Because they've all covered it as well.

    Like it or not, it is news. Look at the number of people reading the story. People wanted to know what happened, and here's the story.

    If anything, you should be happy that the people at the top of the DC Government agree with your point of view.

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  12. I'm inclined to agree with DC Resident. Local television news stories are almost universally without merit. That you would choose to take their inanity as inspiration is a sad reflection on whatever purpose you think your writing here serves.

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  13. The most unbelievable part of the story was that you were actually able to get a response to your FOIA response. The fact that it was timely and even somewhat complete pushes this story into the realm of fantasy.

    I've filed lots of FOIA requests with the DC government and never even received any confirmation back. Someone at DPW must have wanted this story to be told.

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  14. It actually seems to be more the opposite case. A story gets coverage on the blogs, and then local news picks it up.

    The Washington Post has even covered the ghost bikes, so perhaps you all can go bitch to them about how it was a waste of time as well.

    In the meantime, I'll keep covering things that people are interested in. Some of these stories (e.g. ghost bikes) are more niche, to be sure. But I'll stand by saying this is a good story.

    If for some reason I get more than $65 (highly unlikely) I'll likely be donating it to WEAVE or another DC charity.

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  15. I think this is all very interesting, but I can't help being left with this feeling of "throwing good money after bad." Even though $65 isn't very much money, it seems like a lot of time went into it.

    What is the point of this "investigation?" What possible scandal worthy of this much effort are you hoping to uncover?

    At the root of this is a bike locked to a pole. Some people complained, it got removed, the process was mildly screwed up, some other stuff happened.

    What wrongdoing, other than garden-variety DC incompetence and miscommunication, are you hoping to discover here? Why does the actual sequence of events that occurred here matter so much to you? Are you trying to find someone to blame for the blunder? What then? No crime was committed, except by the people who locked a bike to a pole for a year in the first place.

    I guess I'm kind of over it. Actually I was a long time ago. Who cares. Well, maybe the people who think their bike should remain locked (illegally) indefinitely do, but sorry, it's not going to.

    So anyway, while I think your investigative efforts are impressive, what I am left with is this kind of empty feeling. Like, aren't there a million things that actually matter going on in this town that the same efforts would be better used towards? You obviously are resourceful and interested. So why not focus on something more important than figuring out exactly where the wires crossed when removing a piece of trash.

    I am fascinated by your FOIA request, though. The very fact that you got a response, and in such a short period of time, is interesting. It tells me that DC gov. doesn't give a crap about this, e.g. they have nothing to hide. Probably because this is more or less like FOIAing your garbage collector's log for a day. I would be very interested to hear about the process and timeliness of various types of FOIA requests. One could probably figure out the chances of wrongdoing in a given situation based on how short (or long) it takes to get back a FOIA request.

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  16. You know what? I take that back. All of it.

    Obviously people do care, lots of them. I don't care personally, because I don't think that people should be allowed to annex public space for memorials in perpetuity in the first place.

    But a lot of people do, and this is exactly the value of blogs -- because no real reporter would bother to dig into this. But you provided hard facts that should end this whole debate once and for all. And there will undoubtedly be some stupid thing that I DO care about one day, that this post will inspire me to dig into deeper.

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  17. Jamie, I took on this story at first out of personal interest, as I spend a lot of time in that neighborhood and remember the day the accident happened, etc. It seemed to get a good deal of attention when the bike was removed, so I thought I'd look into the hows and whys.

    The only scandal that could have been there was if the trash truck company had been involved, and that would likely be a minor scandal.

    It was a matter that took hold across the 'blogosphere' so i sent in some FOIA requests. I wasn't expecting much as a response, and I think there is a direct correlation between the number of documents provided and the respective agency's motivation. DPW wanted to help clear their name so they dumped a ton of documents on me. That's sort of my guess.

    I'd be glad to take on bigger items; but I do only have a limited amount of time and resources!

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  18. I feel bad that a lady died on her bike. But this ghost bike stuff is out of control.

    I have to agree with the previous commenter that this is definitely something that should be on Stuff White People Like.

    Maybe the memorial isn't having an intended effect, a cycler with high heels on and no helmet cut me off in traffic just the other day. If she got hit, would there be a memorial for her?

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  19. I love how at first this was "hey, some real reporting in DC! You don't see that everyday!" to "Booo bikes! Young white people just love to get self-righteous and ask for money, don't they?"

    And has anyone noticed that the photo is a dilapidated DC MAP sign that's outdated and a real eyesore? Which is exactly what DC MAP said against the ghost bikes? Yet no one's taking action on their rusty, anachronistic sign? Hypocrites.

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  20. I think it's awesome that The Church of Scientology is on the board of directors of DC MAP, whos mission is to make Dupont Circle "an attractive community in which business can thrive."

    Not that a church wouldn't want their community to be attractive too, but I've never heard of one being a member of a business-focused organization. I wonder how this will help them in their quest to retain non-profit status, the revocation of which apparently is high on the Obama administration's to-do list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Scientology#Church_or_business

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  21. If Obama succeeds in revoking Scientology's non-profit status, I will annex public space and build a memorial dedicated to his awesomeness. Then, when it's removed, Dave will have something else to blog about, and in turn, Jamie will have something to bitch about. Everyone will be happy... except for the Scientologists, who don't count.

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  22. Kudos on getting the FOIA material. It's not right that you were charged.

    Blogs are media, and disadvantaged at that since most have no ads running on their sites. (And those that do make zip), so the District's FOIA charges are punitive and designed to keep new media from challenging government.

    Perhaps someone can appeal to Jim Graham to introduce "all documents are free to bloggers" legislation. Making information freely available to DC bloggers is the best thing that DC government's can do to mitigate corruption in this city.

    By removing document barriers to potential bloggers, government oversight by a free an independent press may actually increase. And the cost? It would cost nothing compared to the price of corruption.

    How much has DC spent just this year alone cleaning up public servant messes? Last spring, the DC CTO office was raided and those cases are now working their way through court. I don't even need to bring up the $40 million tax office case because the goodies keep arriving.

    Who knows the impact of increased vigilance by bloggers.

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  23. You've got to be fucking shitting me.

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  24. This isn't just about a bike. This about the Mayor's office being staffed by kids who think THERY'RE the Mayor and what they say goes. No, it's more than that, they think they're king of this realm. They shoot from the hip, make aggressive orders, all without realizing there are existing laws and regulations already in place. That's a bigger story, keep your ears and eyes open and you'll find alot more. And THAT'S journalism.

    $5.00 donation sent.

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  25. Yeah... I'm not gonna donate. This is your hobby, and hobbies cost money sometimes. You did a good job, but I didn't have strangers sending me money back when I was building model rockets as a kid, either.

    Anyway, $65 seems pretty reasonable when you consider the hours of staff time involved in responding to a FOIA. If it were cheaper, government agencies would spend all their time with nuisance requests. Besides, I'm pretty amazed that they responded quickly and thoroughly.

    Finally, JR's was part of the bike removal request, even though they're many blocks away? I remember back when JRs wanted to expand their patio years ago, and anyone who objected was called homophobic. I guess they're bikophobic.

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  26. If thousands of people got information and enjoyment out of your model rockets, perhaps it would have made more sense to ask for money.

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  27. Just because it's FOIA doesn't mean it's free. Having been put on FOIA detail I've got to say if you got it in a timely manner then count your blessings. I've screened things for FOIA requests and it ain't fun on this end either buddy.

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  28. You know @Mari makes a very good point. Whenever someone requests access to information that is not available online, it places a burden on the government to find everything and get it to you.

    In just this case, think about the effort involved in obtaining all the emails, logs, and so on related to this simple activity.

    $65 sounds like a bargain. I am sure the cost to the taxpayers of your request was a lot more than that in terms of the time involved in compiling all this stuff.

    Without the fee, the government would be at the mercy of any jackass who decided they wanted a copy of their trash collector's log for whatever reason they wanted. The fee is a reasonable deterrent from frivolous requests. (And in my mind, this one borders on frivolous, since there's not a lot at stake and no suspicion of criminal wrongdoing).

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  29. Exactly. The information contained herein is interesting but frivolous.

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  30. Bikers get hit all the time. Often by people from Maryland and Virginia that have little patience for or experience with driving in DC.
    Thank you for your efforts in covering this story.

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  31. Nice post!! thanks for sharing!!!

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