Snoqualmie City staff may receive additional training from the state for the processing of public record requests.
A September staff report from city clerk Jodi Warren, who is also the Snoqualmie records officer, contained an update on public document requests. She mentioned a new, free program through the state Attorney General’s Office that assists local governments with Public Records Act (PRA) training and consulting.
“I have submitted a request to achieve the following goals: help develop and implement best practices, mitigate risk and liability, review our practices for Public Records Act compliance, identify opportunities to improve access to records, explore the use of technology to facilitate improved records management and production and provide training to staff. I am working on coordinating time for them to spend with staff,” she wrote.
The program she referred to is the Local Government Public Records Consultation Program, she told the Record. The program was created after Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1594 amended the PRA at RCW 42.56.570 in 2017, she explained.
“The program provides consultation services to local governments for developing best practices in complying with the PRA,” she said.
Participating agencies receive information and assistance to create best practices for responding to records requests, seeking additional public and private resources for developing and updating technology information services, and mitigating liability and costs of compliance.
“There is no cost to the city for participating in this program,” she said. “We continually strive to improve access to our residents. The city is committed to open government through access to public records.”
She also said city staff members are working on getting new public records software, and they anticipate bringing a recommendation before council within the next month.
Staff is gathering information from other jurisdictions on how their systems work, and so far they have received demos from NextRequest and CloudPRW. Staff will also demo GovQA.
“Better technology and training are essential to allow us to effectively and efficiently process and respond to requests,” Warren said.
She also said the implementation of an Enterprise Management System will help to make more documents available on the city website. That will not help with the requests for email and several other types of records, but it will help with some, she said.
Staff continues to upload contracts, agreements, plans, and digital copies of other documents to the city’s website.
The current concerns are that processing records requests takes staff time that could otherwise be used for other city proceedings. Many requests are for emails and bank statements, Warren said, which require reviewing for sensitive information that has to be redacted and logged.
As far as gathering documents, Warren said that is a much easier task due to many of the city’s records being in the document library on the city website.
“Search criteria [for emails] has to be developed and a ticket put into the IT department. The search results typically include thousands of emails, which each must be opened and reviewed for any exempt information. If there are any exemptions, those exemptions must be redacted and an exemption log created citing the appropriate RCW for each,” she said. “If you think about emails – one person can send an email to 20 different people. Each of those 20 can respond to all – and so on and so on. While many of the emails may be duplicates or non-responsive, they still require the same amount of time to process.”
When asked if she felt the current staff training is adequate, she said yes.
Right now, the current training in place for city staff comes from two annual one-day conferences through the Washington Association of Public Records Officers (WAPRO). Training is also offered through the Secretary of State.
“The training meets our purpose,” she said. But she also said there is always room to improve.
In July the Snoqualmie City Council had adopted new rules for public records policies and billing methods, which limited the staff time for processing records requests to 16 hours per month for the records officer and eight hours per month for department-designated staff.
The change also banned the possession of cameras, mobile phones, laptops, tablets or other electronic devices in the room where public records are made available for inspection, meaning requestors must pay to receive a copy or rely on memory and handwritten notes.
Warren previously estimated the average amount of staff time spent on records work per month to be about 172 hours. The city decided to limit staff time after a spike in the amount of requests.
To date, Warren says there have been 105 requests in 2019, not including records requested directly from the police department. A log showed that in 2018 a total of 724 staff hours were spent fulfilling 144 requests.