City Legal Department deserves more oversight for Public Records Act compliance


A table of the budget submitted by the city.

With all due respect to Councilwoman Patty Nolan, her questions Tuesday about the Legal Department and the Public Records Act didn’t go far enough.

During budget hearings — the legal department owes $3.9 million in funds — Nolan noted the increase in the number of public records requests to 1,462 in fiscal year 2021, though the number could be as lower than the 876 requests of the year before. Nolan wanted to know the speed of responses, which by state law must be within 10 business days.

There are so many requests for public records that the legal department has hired another employee to try to keep up. “The requests have increased exponentially,” city attorney Nancy Glowa told Nolan. “We actually increased that department after the law changed from a public records access officer position to two people – we now have a deputy public records access officer. And I’m sure they could use two more from today and still be overwhelmed. There’s a lot of work, and they work incredibly hard: nights, weekends, there’s a lot of work. But our goal is always to comply with legal requirements.

What Nolan didn’t ask is why there are so many requests, and how the number has increased not since fiscal year 2020, but since this status change was implemented on January 1, 2017. , and the allowed response time has increased to 10 business days from 10 calendar days. Nolan didn’t ask how many requests went unanswered. She did not ask if the city was asking simple questions of city staff and turning them into requests for public records that clog the system and inflate the numbers unnecessarily. (It is.) Nolan did not ask whether city staff were essentially impersonating residents to create “public records requests” without permission. (They are.)

This is further important as Nolan offered future funding for technology that could help, and Glowa turned it down noting that the department had introduced new technology for this purpose in 2017 and already had the help of specialists. of the city’s information technology – and that access to public records Officer Seah Levy has “significant experience in computer-related work herself…I don’t think we could use additional technology support, because we have already put a lot of time and thought into developing the system we use”.

And yet.

The most recent public records request I made was on July 21. (My records show that I made four requests for documents in 2021. This was the fourth.) By law, this should have elicited a response by August 4; my reply arrived on October 19, either 90 calendar days later or 62 business days – 52 late.

Notice the calendar: ninety calendar days is the deadline for an appeal.

“Could be considered harassment”

Since the initial request did not receive a “timely” response, as Glowa likes to call it, the information was less relevant than if the city had complied with the law. But the information would still be good to have, so at 84 days – six days before my appeal deadline – I called the Legal Department to ask Levy what was going on with the request and if I should waste my time and that of state personnel with appeal documents.

But whoever answered the phone at the legal department when I called on October 12 only told me that Levy was “unavailable” and that my only recourse was to leave a message. Mindful of the deadline, I asked what that meant: She quit? She is on vacation ? Or is she at lunch, or on the other line? Whether Levy came back in an hour, a day, a week, or ever didn’t matter what I was supposed to do. But the legal department refused to listen, refused to answer, hung up on me and told me when I called back that if I called back, this could be considered harassment.

It’s true: the legal department, in violation of state law, threatened to file a false charge against me – a involving I was acting willfully and maliciously to be cruel, hostile or to seek revenge and cause fear, intimidation, abuse or property damage – for trying to secure my rights under the same state law that the city claims to be working so hard to keep up with.

ask for an apology

I called the city manager’s office the next day to report what had happened – both the legal department’s failure to follow the law and their threat to me, but also their need to apologize for this threatens.

It wasn’t just October 13 that I called. I called the city manager’s office to demand accountability for the actions of the legal department on October 20; November 12; November 16; November 22; December 2; and December 16.

On the first call, I was asked if I wanted to “be contacted about this,” and I gave my name and contact information. In December it changed to “I’m not aware of your complaint” and yet another offer of “Check and see what’s going on and get back to you” – another offer that was never followed up. effect. I was told early on that the office had ‘sent in’ my concerns but heard nothing, so my ‘best bet’ was to speak with Glowa herself.

She won’t respond to the City Manager’s office, who employs her, but maybe she would respond to me, the complainant, he seemed to think.

Filing of appeal

Because I didn’t know if Levy was working within six days of my initial appeal, let alone if she was still working for the city or alive, I went ahead and filed my appeal before time ran out. .

Levy finally responded on the last day of the appeal window, which means that after going 90 days on a 10 day request, she had indeed continued to waste my time and was now wasting the time of the employees of the State to answer an ultimately useless call – also wasting taxpayers’ money. Everything I had tried to avoid.

“My apologies for the delay in this response,” Levy said Oct. 19. “We are currently extremely overwhelmed with requests for public records.”

An apology from the legal department for ignoring me, hanging up on me, and threatening me? I never had one.

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