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City of Portola tackles records requests with new system

The City of Portola council met for a regular meeting on the evening of Wednesday, July 13 and the first part of that meeting can be found here.

The latter part of the meeting, a discussion on public records, is covered below.

Public records requests

“There has been a lot of misconceptions and misinformation scattered about by the public, and questions about what the deal is with the requests and how we are handling these,” Kennedy said.

“I thought it would be a good time to explain how we manage our public records and the purpose of the new system that we have developed to manage the public records, and the process.”

 Kennedy explained that as everyone knew, the city had been out of a clerk to handle the records, and when he had to determine how to respond to requests, he recognized that there had been no real consistency to public record organization and management over the years.

“Years ago, I started creating minute and agenda software to help smaller organizations comply with the Brown Act,” Kennedy explained. “I went home one night and called my software engineer, and said hey, we’ve got an issue, we need to manage public records.”

This led to Kennedy and the engineer creating a tailor -made program for the city to utilize. “We now have a fantastic system especially for us,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy then explained how the public records request process could look very different depending on what is involved in the request itself. “When a public records request comes in, the request can 15 minutes, or it can be up to ten hours’ worth of research per request,” Kennedy explained. “Sometimes it takes four or five people to put together a request. Luckily, Susan Scarlett volunteered to help us catch up on some of these requests.”

The new system works in such a way that all involved in getting a completed public records request together can log on, add notes and upload documents to a cloud together,

“The end product is a tool that you council members and any member of the public can look at and see what records requests are on there,” Kennedy said.

“This is not to get mad at who is making requests; it is a little comical for me to hear someone say that I don’t want to comply with the law and get records out in a timely fashion. I and Susan are pretty strong critics of local government, and if I didn’t know the facts and was listening, I would also wonder why this wasn’t being handled.”

Kennedy stated that there had never been a time that the city had not responded within ten days to at least let the person know how long a request will take if it is more in-depth. Kennedy then thanked City Finance Officer Susan Scarlett for all of the work she had done to assist in getting the requests fulfilled, above and beyond her usual workload.

“I also want to clarify that there is no charge to the city for this tool I developed to make our jobs easier,” Kennedy explained. “I helped to create this to make our jobs easier and so that the requests can be all in one spot for the public to access easily.”

Kennedy then went onto respond in part to accusations made by Hart.

“In regard to Hart’s accusations that I refused to read the comments on the cell tower, those emails came in just hours prior to meeting. I would never dissuade civil engagement,” Kennedy said.  “Let’s just talk about it all. The new agenda program is the most transparent and public friendly system that the city has ever seen. I just wanted the world to know that it isn’t as it is described by certain people in the public.”

Cooley asked if the City of Portola was an outlier in handling public records requests in this manner or whether there were other municipalities handling it in a similar manner.

Scarlett answered that CivicPlus has software called NextRequest, with over 9,000 customers using a system very similar for public records requests in cities, counties, and universities.  “It provides an amazing degree of transparency in the city,” Scarlett said. “All public records requests will go in. I was kind of amazed that there were so many cities that are doing what we are doing.”

Powers said that they’ve all followed the trajectory of public records requests over the years, well before the current city manager.

“When we’re down to as few staff as we have, and there are only ten days to respond which includes weekends, it may shut down the only people we have available which is three on a good day,” Powers said.

“It almost stops what the city government can do for the people. When that gets out of balance, which is all we are talking about here, we have to get our real mission accomplished every single day.”

Powers went on to state then when those days go south because of an overload, ‘we have to find a system that is able to sort through these.’

“If someone abuses that system, we will have to deal with them later. Abuse of the system of public requests can result in being no longer invited to participate,” Powers closed.

Josh Hart then thanked Kennedy for agendizing the item during public comment and thanked staff for all they had done to make the public records accessible before going directly into rebuttal to what Kennedy had said.

 “Without public access to so-called public records the city cannot really be called a public entity,” Hart said. “There is an obligation of the city to respond to the public and transparent. We pay for the city to run through our taxes and fees, and we deserve to know what the city is doing on our behalf. Public records requests are not a privilege but a right that California citizens possess.”

Hart went on to state that he felt that Kennedy ‘apparently thinks this was a waste of time and money’ and that he felt there was a hostility to public engagement.

“If there is an overabundance of requests, it indicates the lack of public trust in the way the city is being operated,” Hart went on.

Hart also voiced concerns that when it came to the new website, there were no contracts with the city or emails to council that he knew of. He contended that the city’s ‘constant kvetching’ about public records was unfounded, stating that ‘disorganization in the city is not our fault.’

Hart then stated that he and the groups he represents “question the motivation” of the current interim city manager. Hart also noted that requesters were unhappy with being listed publicly on the new website with their full names, accusing the city of trying to shame them by sharing public records requests and who made them on a public website. Hart closed by stating that council members lack of action was troubling. “Hopefully we will see this change soon, or the citizens of Portola can change the composition of city council at election time,” Hart said.

City Finance Officer Susan Scarlett then spoke to respond to Hart, stating that she had worked with Kennedy for many years and that she knew how he feels about public information and local government.

“In June, if I had billed you for the extra time spent on these requests, it would have been over $2,000 cost to the city- if I had billed you. I have no argument nor does any staff of the validity of public records requests. However, we had over ten in one day from Mr. Hart, and I am going to read them,” Scarlett said.

The requests included such items as ‘all information on the subject of the Brown Act as it pertains to City Council meetings via Zoom’, ‘any agenda items related to Brown Act’, ‘any agendas related to 2022 Gravel Grinder’, and ‘any documents or communications related to any aspect of public comment at city meetings,’ amongst several other items.

“We have ten days to respond to each request, and that includes weekends,” Scarlett emphasized. “It’s ten calendar days. I have responded to Mr. Hart on all of those in some way- as you can see, that is an enormous amount of information. In my cumulative 23 years, I have never spent this much time on records requests. It’s almost insulting to me that we’re being accused of trying to keep information from the public because that is the exact opposite of what we have ever done here.”

Resident Ashlee Sims then commented again, resuming her statement that the city clerk was ‘missing.’ Sims also registered a complaint about the release of the identities to the public of those making public requests online. “I did do my own research on this subject,” Sims stated sharply.

“If you don’t like providing records to the public, maybe you should resign.”

“Unfortunately, we have had a couple of resignations,” Kennedy responded.

“Mr. Piat” commented that “the reason Kennedy was sensing so much animosity was the words he used,” before going on to raise her voice, telling Kennedy that “he wasn’t elected” and that the city was “not a private enterprise.”

The caller had to be muted so that Mayor Morton could clarify a question to the caller, who came back into the room angrily stating that she was not done yet with her time. “This is a right, not a privilege,” the woman said hotly.

Scarlett responded that perhaps people should look at her responses on the website to Mr. Hart. “I have not blown him off,” Scarlett said. “In fact, I received another public record request online just now from Mr. Hart.”

Antoinette Quesenberry then commented, stating that she applauded the new program for public records requests. “I went to the Portola city website, and I was astonished at the volume of requests from May 11 to present,” Quesenberry said. “There are 21 records requests published, with seven from Ashlee Sims and a total of 12 from Josh Hart, and two from other citizens. Plus, the one Josh submitted during this meeting, which makes 22. I’m not sure what Josh’s intentions were with his article on Plumas News, aside from getting other community members to start making requests to further bury the city employees in needless work, or maybe to try and create a smoke screen for how many requests he alone is making… Either way, what he has actually done is shed light on what a nuisance he and Ms. Sims are to our city government. This childish behavior exhibited by people that will tell you they are acting in the publics’ best interest is false.”

Quesenberry went on to state that there were many examples of ‘frivolous requests’ within the records requests, in addition to what Scarlett had listed earlier, including requests from Sims for all records relating to ‘Jon Kennedy’s website.’

“In conclusion, I too invite the public to read through the records requests. It is enlightening to see who is really wasting tax-payer money,” Quesenberry said.

At this time, it was clarified in response to questions raised that legally, there was ‘no guaranteed right to privacy for those engaging with a public entity, such as the city, unless there is some specific reason that information should be redacted or confidential.’ After some further discussion, Cooley commented that council would continue to research and bring the item back in future for further discussion as needed. Cooley also commented that he believed the city and staff were proceeding in the best possible course at this time. “There is room for improvement,” he said. “We are improving in all of those areas and it is a lengthy process. I am pleased with the process in place today.”

All council members agreed and with that, the meeting adjourned.

For more information on this or any other meeting of the City of Portola, visit https://www.cityofportola.com/.

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