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Requests for public records skyrocketing

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County: Document retrieval process viewed as cumbersome, costly

By Carol A. Clark

A race against the clock begins each time someone exercises their right to inspect a public record from Los Alamos County. The Public Records Act mandates municipalities produce the document within three days.

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The problem is that while locating a document may involve one employee and just a few minutes of time – it also can mushroom to include more than 20 employees spending weeks, even months on the request.

As local resident requests for public records have been steadily growing, that leaves some county workers scrambling to stay on top of an ever-growing mountain of documents, which need to be processed.

“The number of requests we are receiving regularly has significantly increased,” said Public Records Custodian Leslie Bucklin. “I do not believe this is going to slow down any time soon. I am currently getting anywhere from four to 10 new requests per week.”

Public information requests
•2009 – 45 public information requests
•2010 – 48 public information requests
•2011 – 219 public information requests
•2009 – Bucklin logged 45 hours processing requests
•2010 – Bucklin logged 165 hours processing requests
•2011– Bucklin logged 681 hours processing requests

Retrieval process

“The first thing I do when a request comes in is contact Records & Information Management (RIM), because if the records have been inventoried and centralized into the Records Management System, then it is very fast and easy to get the records … I can usually provide them to the requestor in the next day or two,” she said. “If RIM doesn’t have the records, either because the records have not yet been provided to them, or because it is an active project, or because they are required to remain in another department (police department, courts, human resources or the clerk’s office), where they are inventoried, then I go to my division custodians in the applicable department to retrieve the information.”

Complying with the Act

“I try hard to ensure that we treat all requestors with the utmost respect, provide excellent customer service and follow the Inspection of Public Records Act to provide the public with an open government,” Bucklin said.

At times, she has to rely on individual division custodians in order to comply with the Inspection of Public Records Act three-day turnaround requirement. Due to the shear volume of requests, Bucklin sometimes has no choice than to send out extension notices, which inform the requestor that more time is needed to fulfill the inquiry.

Bucklin oversees 30 division custodians. Each is trained on the Open Records Act and county policy.

“Not all requests come directly to me, nor do they need to,” Bucklin said. “Many requests can be handled on the spot by a division custodian. However, if the request becomes more time consuming, I become the point of contact for the requestor and provide updates, 15-day extension notifications and clarification letters.”  

Most requests are related to active projects, individuals, dated or topical e-mail, or inactive records that aren’t inventoried, she said. These requests take more time because they are so “wide open.”

“These requests are handled through my office, where I can keep in close contact with the requestor, the staff locating the records, and the attorneys if redaction or review is necessary,” Bucklin said.

Causes for delay

Because the county is only now developing a centralized records system, Bucklin must search through various records of individuals in different divisions. Certain county records are inactive and haven’t been inventoried, so someone must weed through mountains of files to search for a requested document.

“Sometimes records are filed in a reasonably organized manner, but can still be hard to find,” Bucklin said. “Plus, if there is any chance that any records responsive to the request may have been kept elsewhere, or could have been moved, or, if the files aren’t organized at all, then we must look through everything to ensure compliance.”

Large, unmanaged e-mail accounts

Many public requests include e-mail correspondence, and many of the topics are issues managed by multiple people, or senior management or county councilors. Since each e-mail is considered an individual record, the number of responsive records is consistently proving to be significant. “I sometimes have to search through thousands of e-mails to find responsive records Bucklin said. “The search process is often complicated and records sometimes have to be reviewed multiple times to ensure complete responsiveness. This also causes a lot of duplication. It also raises the risk of not finding all of the records in the request, therefore increasing our liability, so we must take additional time to make sure we are thorough in our search.”  

Review and redaction time

Redaction is important for many topics protected within the Public Information Act, such as to protect county employees, county investigations and tactical response plans. It takes a significant amount of time to search for records, especially emails, print or provide the records for departmental review/redact protected content and prepare records for public inspection.

Limited resources

Bucklin is the sole employee who has computer software, a scanner and a low-cost, high-volume printer that allows her to conduct mass printing, electronic redaction and scanning that has been necessary since 2009. Soon, RIM will have additional resources to help process large requests.

“This additional help is dependent on staffing, however, and right now all of the temporary RIM staff were gone as of July 1,” Bucklin said.

Lost records

On those “rare” occasions when all efforts to locate a document have been exhausted, Bucklin issues a “denial” letter to the requestor.  

“I usually get the opportunity to speak with the requestor (or e-mail them) about the efforts we put into locating the records, and why they may not exist,” she said.

Streamlining the process

RIM archiving is improving the system, Bucklin said, allowing researchers to conduct one search for records from any department. This can cut weeks off the process. The best part of the centralized system is the reliability of the search, she said, adding that it minimizes human error, lost records and misunderstandings.

“But it will be a while before all county records are centralized,” Bucklin said.

County Records Manager Barb Ricci said this morning that in the two years she’s worked for the county, her office has appraised and processed more than 6,000 boxes of records.

“It’s an ongoing process because new records are being created every day,” Ricci said.

Cost recovery is nonexistent

The county has no way to recover the costs involved in processing the growing requests for information from the public.

“Because technology allows us to scan and email records, people rarely pay for copies anymore,” Bucklin said.
It’s also difficult to figure out how much it costs to process various requests because the employees make different amounts (in terms of salaries) and spend random amounts of time searching their files for the information.

“But if you note the significance of the staff levels that can become involved in just one request, you can get an idea of how costly this process can become,” Bucklin said. “Also, requests are likely to pass through several individuals’ hands more than once.”

A staggering process

Recently, 20 people became involved in one request for records related to the Juvenile Justice Advisory Board:
•County Public Records Custodian Leslie E. Bucklin searched through two former county administrator’s and a former assistant county administrator’s records
•Three finance staff, including two supervisors
•Three community services staff, including a department head
•Three Municipal Court staff, including a judge