The Kirkland City Council reviewed a public disclosure ordinance draft at a council retreat early February to discuss, among other topics, how to establish greater transparency and reasonable levels of city resources for public record responses.
City Manager Kurt Triplett said public records requests have significantly increased throughout the years, noting a surge in complicated ones.
“I think a lot of that has to do with the electronic age,” said Triplett. “It’s much easier to request them but that’s a good thing … it’s easier for someone to email and text, they don’t have to come in to fill out a form anymore. And, any request we get, we have to respond to.”
But, as a result of the “electronic age,” public records reach into the depths of email threads with multiple recipients, and when a requester isn’t specific enough or modifies what he needs, the request can become entangled.
In 2012, the city received 7,026 requests throughout all departments, and it is estimated city staff in other departments, including the city clerk’s office, spent 4,500 hours in responding to the requests. Among the requests, Kirkland’s city clerk, Kathi Anderson, responded to 210 complicated category 3,4 and 5 requests.
Records requests in categories 3-5 are defined as “a large number of records that are not easily identified, located or accessible that require coordination between other city departments.” The more severe categories 4 and 5 also require public disclosure review or legal review.
“I think Kirkland actually does a really excellent job in responding to public records requests,” said Triplett. “We have a great clerk, we have a pretty good system and our thought is, before we get one of those crazy, really difficult responses that tips the whole system over, we ought to have all these things in place, so if they do come, we’re ready for it.”
While he admits the city is beginning to reach capacity with requests, he attributes the ordinance as a way to “fix the roof when it’s not raining” and hopes its model will put Kirkland in a leadership role for other cities.
“As far as I can determine, the city is not currently ‘overwhelmed’ by requests, although there’s no question that our employees who handle requests are very busy and have some stressful days,” said Councilman Toby Nixon, in an email who proposed this ordinance in January 2012 and is president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. “… There have been a few very large or complicated requests that have consumed a lot of time, and we’re possibly coming to a tipping point, which is why having this ordinance in place will be important.”
The draft ordinance calls for council members to allot time during the biennial budget process to discuss how much city resources should be spent on public record responses.
The Public Records Act allows a jurisdiction to define an appropriate level of effort so that responding to requests doesn’t create “excessive interference with the essential function of government.” According to city documents, the cost of hours worked, consultation cost, data storage and off-site records retrieval is estimated at $375,000 a year.
“If the volume or complexity of requests exceeds the available resources, then responses will be spread out over time – no request will ever be entirely denied purely because of resource constraints,” said Nixon. “While it’s technically possible that the resources available for processing requests could be reduced in the future, the fact is that the volume of records requests has been steadily increasing as people become more aware of their right to access. If the city were to reduce the amount spent on labor for handling requests, I believe it would happen not because of general budget cuts, but because improved efficiency, processes and technology simply allow us to spend less to handle the same or greater number of requests.”
The other part of the ordinance would create a running and active log of public records requests, which would be available for viewing at kirklandwa.gov. This would allow the city to monitor the workload, which would inform council members during the biennial budget process, and let requesters know their records might not be available for a certain amount of time because other more complicated records were requested the same day.
“I’ve found that if one person is interested in a public record, then chances are other people will be interested in the same record – so posting the list of records requests, along with, as often as possible, the records actually produced in response to the request, will help take the load off city employees of people asking for the same records that others have received,” Nixon said.
Upon implementation, a Public Disclosure Steering Team and Public Disclosure Coordinating Team will work together on public record requests, policy issues and the ordinance to ensure it runs smoothly.
After gathering input from council members, the Association of Washington Cities, the city attorney, city clerk professional organizations and the Kirkland community, Triplett expects it to be at least six months before the council sees this ordinance in a council agenda packet. Another factor is the many House and Senate bills currently sitting in the Washington State Legislature that touch on the issue of public record responses, which means another council retreat could be as soon as spring to reconvene.
“If state legislation passes, we would have to comply with that. If legislation passes, we’d probably have to adjust the ordinance significantly,” said Triplett. “We don’t have unlimited ability to shape this as a local government but we have some ability in the records act to define what excessive interference or essential levels of government are. That’s actually what makes this unique. We’re probably one of the first local governments who are trying to get our arms around this.”