The costs of transparency | Guest editorial

Public records are public property and agencies are the custodians of this public property.

  • Wednesday, May 1, 2019 8:30am
  • Opinion
Bothell deputy mayor Davina Duerr. Photo courtesy of city of Bothell

Bothell deputy mayor Davina Duerr. Photo courtesy of city of Bothell

You may have read my recent op-ed about the city of Bothell’s commitment to transparency. The city’s business is your business. Here at the city of Bothell, our goal is to make it easier for you to get information, both on our website as well as via public records requests. The public may not be aware, but these services do come at a cost and are unfunded mandates from the state. In the last few years the city is proud to have demonstrated our commitment by investing in software to make access to public records easier.

State law {Chapter 40.14 RCW (1957)} governs the retention, preservation and lawful destruction of public records. Public records are public property and agencies are the custodians of this public property. Agencies are required to retain records for different lengths of time depending on content, function and purpose of the record. The Washington state archives’ records retention schedules establish the time frames in which records must be retained.

In addition, the Public Records Act, passed as an initiative in 1972, says that agencies shall make available for inspection and copying all public records, unless exempt or disclosure prohibited.

To enhance transparency, the city implemented GovQA software in August 2017. GovQA is a user-friendly platform to receive, process, produce and track public records requests. With its easily accessible web portal at www.bothellwa.gov/records, GovQA allows the public to submit a request for public records, track the progress, receive updates by email and download electronic records. The software helps the city track records requests across multiple departments, standardize records processing and fulfill requests in a timely manner, ensuring the public receives complete and accurate records in a reasonable time. GovQA also greatly helps capture the information necessary for the mandated, annual reporting to the state.

Getting information without a public records request

Many of our commonly requested records (building plans, ordinances, permits, contracts, etc.) are available online without the need for a public records request. Requesters can enter keywords into the request form for easy access.

GovQA has a feature that allows staff to publish and archive public records requests they have already processed. The public can search other requests for similar, desired subject matter and download the documents produced within that request. This eliminates the need to submit a new request and provides faster, easier access to records. In 2018, the public archive pages were viewed more than 2,700 times.

Finally, to further our transparency goals, the city recently purchased an additional module in GovQA called Proactive Pages to make even more records available without requiring a public records request. Proactive Pages will allow staff to post documents without a public records request and allow customers, media, etc. to follow and receive notifications when anything is updated. These services will likely be available by this summer, after staff imports the documents.

The costs of records management

Making documents and information available to the public, and managing that information takes dedicated funding. The city has several records specialists whose only job is to process records requests in a timely manner. In addition, when public records requests are filed, other city staff spend time searching for relevant documents to comply with the law.

Records management by the numbers

2,094 requests processed in 2018

$459,598.27 = Estimated records management costs for 2018, not including overhead

2001.25 staff hours spent processing records requests in 2018, only counting records staff time. Does not include other staff time or legal review time.

$119,144 = Public records processing costs for 2018

Providing public records is an essential government service that we are committed to fulfill. We’re making access to public records easier for you, but it takes resources. The city of Bothell is proud of the proactive steps we’ve taken towards making city government more accessible to the public.

Davina Duerr is the deputy mayor of the city of Bothell.

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