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Records requests cost city $149,000 for Jan.-Nov. 2011
The number of public records requests made to the City of Mercer Island went down this past year. But the cost of handling them was still substantial.
City records indicate that for the first 11 months of 2011, a total of 727 record requests were made. In 2010, the requests reached 910, up from 557 in 2009.
Yet data from the city indicates that even though the number of requests has leveled off, it does not mean that the city is spending less time or money handling them.
City staff estimated that it cost the city $149,000 to handle the requests for January through November of last year.
“About 30 percent of my time in the first 11 months of 2011, was spent on records requests. City Clerk Ali Spietz said.
In the aftermath of the lawsuit brought by former city attorney and assistant city manager, Londi Lindell, the City Council directed city staff to conduct a review of existing city procedures regarding the handling of public records requests.
The Lindell matter resulted in a $90,000 fine levied against the city for public records act violations, along with $94,000 that the city was ordered to pay for Lindell’s attorney fees in the records matter.
The review of the City’s Public Records Act procedures was presented to the Council on Dec. 5. The report was prepared by internal staff and Jeff Myers, an outside attorney with expertise in public records. The report to the Council included an analysis of the types and amount of record requests handled by the city, the amount of staff time it took to respond, and copies of special reports on the topic prepared by the Washington State Association of Cities.
In a story for the magazine, Cityvision, published by the Association of Washington Cities, Jean Godden, a Seattle City Councilmember and a former Seattle Times and PI journalist wrote about the conflict between being a passionate advocate of open government and a witness to abuses of the system.
“While we do charge 15 a page for copies, that does not repay government for the amount of time required to fill these requests,” Godden wrote.
Similar calls for help from cities across the state has led to calls to the state Legislature to intervene.
The largest category of public records requests at the City concern police and law enforcement actions. Matters concerning permits and property are the next highest category. Other requests are from attorneys representing clients who have filed claims against the city.
About two-thirds of the requests are relatively simple, involving the retrieval and copying of records — usually a half hour or less each, according to the report. The remaining amount, or about 40 percent, takes anywhere from two to 15 hours each to review and process. Over the last three years, there have been 60 requests for data concerning the Lindell lawsuit. Most required greater than average staff time and legal review. Time and expense for legal review was not counted in the report beyond the time spent internally by the City Attorney’s office.
The report also offers examples of how a single request can require hours of work.
In 2008, the report said, two individuals submitted separate requests for all correspondence regarding the tenure of the Tent City homeless encampment that set up at the United Methodist Church that year. This request took four staff 14 hours to collect, compile and review. The request resulted in 14 three-inch thick notebooks full of emails.
The report also listed the number of requests by year made by the top 12 individual requestors for the years 1997 through 2001 YTD. The top three individual requestors submitted 323 record requests during the 15-year period. Over that 15-year period, the top requestor asked for a total of 185 records, an average of 12 per year.
Between 2008 and 2011, the same top three individuals asked the city for a total of 124 records. The top requestor made 53.
To see the Citivision report, go to http://www.awcnet.org/images/flash/2011/Cityvision_JanFeb2011.swf.