Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Public records, their requests and their availability

Mayor’s note: As part of Lakewood’s longstanding commitment to public accountability, I am pleased to announce that the city today released the first 1,389 pages of what will likely be tens of thousands of additional pages of records to be released related to the negotiations and deliberations over the future of Lakewood Hospital and healthcare in Lakewood. The records released today may be viewed here

As I explain below, any time the city is asked to release public records, we must first undertake a rigorous review to prevent the release of confidential information, such as a citizen’s or employee’s personal or medical-related information, third parties’ trade-secret information, privileged attorney-client communications and confidential matters involving pending litigation.

Today’s release follows the city’s prior release of more than 10,000 pages of other records related to the recent hospital and healthcare matters. You can find a listing all healthcare-related records requests made by citizens and responded to by the city government here. More current and historic information and documents on healthcare in Lakewood may be found here.
The work of government produces a great deal of records. The volume is generally the result of several factors:
  •  The large number of participants and organizations involved in just about every incident or subject handled by government.
  •  The long tenure of a subject, with a large number of iterations of every facet and fact at play. Many issues in government are discussed for months or even years, and so there is considerable back and forth discussing the various topics. 
  • The complicated nature of many subjects.
In a bygone era, most of the records were on paper. When I become mayor in 2011, the mayor’s office housed file cabinets for each mayoral administration going back to the late 1980s. It has become clear that the digital age is having a profound impact on the sheer number of records that are quickly generated, and saved, compared to the small number of physical records previously created. This is especially true when you consider email correspondence originating within and coming to the government.

Today, 95 percent of our records are digital—and there are a lot of them. The good news is that these records do not require physical space; digital storage is more robust than ever. For example, electronic records are maintained for indefinite periods of time and are almost never deleted outright. In fact, as of this writing the total number of records kept by our email archiving service exceeds 7.1 million!

Consequently, as a practical matter our retention of records is expanded significantly. However, while citizens’ access to records seems like an easy goal to meet, our own ability to categorize and review the increased volume of records prior to producing them has become more difficult. The bad news is that records requesters sometimes assume we can merely push a button and the requested records, electronic or otherwise, are extracted and immediately available to them. This is often not the case, particularly for complicated requests.

Public access
Most of the records generated by government are reviewable by citizens. There are a few limitations to this general rule. For example, the following items are generally exempt from disclosure under state law:
  • Matters involving pending litigation and attorney-client privileged communications
  • Matters of a personal or private nature (think Social Security numbers, medical information and other sensitive information stored in employment files, and third parties’ confidential trade secrets)  
  • Matters that, if released, could impact ongoing criminal investigations 
  • Detailed infrastructure and security records, the release of which could work to citizens’ detriment
Challenges with handling requests
Even though some records we generate are not public in nature, the vast majority are. The city is ordinarily very quick to respond to records requests, and we appreciate the opportunity to share information with the taxpayers who own these records. But periodically we face challenges that make this work very difficult.

Challenge 1: Sheer number of digital records to be reviewed. To appreciate the difficulty of responding to some requests, consider the fact that in the digital age anytime a document is created, typically multiple drafts of that document exist. Think of all the iterations of setting up a meeting or discussing a topic with multiple participants, the back-and-forth questions and answers about a meeting or a subject, and the volume of written communication, however brief and perhaps negligible, when previously these digital communications would have scarcely existed. Before releasing these documents, every document must be reviewed against the protected criteria noted above. This can take a great deal of time.

Challenge 2: Confusing, unclear and nonspecific requests. A proper public records request should be as specific as possible so as to identify specifically the material the government is being asked to produce. This specificity helps insure that the government understands what records are being requested and that all the requested documents are found and delivered to the requester. Typically, the more specific the request, the smaller the quantity of documents that comply, the more likely the documents are on topic, and the more quickly the city’s review and release of those documents occurs.

Requests that don’t seek specifically identified documents, but instead seek records vaguely based on whether they “relate to” or “regard” or “concern” other records, concepts or topics put the government in an unworkable situation. When it receives these kinds of nebulously-worded requests, the city is then forced to try to figure out what records might be responsive to the request, which can lead to folly and can dramatically increase the cost of response. And requests that seek the entire duplication of a body of records—one recent request, for instance, sought every one of my communications since I took office in January 2011—are improper because they would obligate us to review every one of those records, which could take months and months under the best of circumstances. In my case, that’s more than 137,000 emails by our count. Not everything that ends up in my inbox or comes from my computer email account documents the operation of government.  Such a request, then, requires us to extract the records which may be of legitimate interest from all the extraneous records.

Adding to the complication in the Lakewood Hospital situation is the fact that several pending litigation matters remain open long after the closure of the hospital, and so producing communications generated within the context of those court actions requires an even more deliberative, methodical approach. Our law department oversees this litigation and the production of records, and it requires a considerable amount of time and expense to ensure the city’s interests in that litigation—and thus the taxpayers’ interests—are not jeopardized.    

We treat records requests seriously. We remain accountable to those we serve. Therefore, we have added a public records log to the city website detailing all Lakewood Hospital- and healthcare-related requests and the dates of our responses, and we are always seeking ways to improve our turnaround time responding to requests. We will continue to whittle away at any disputed requests  in an effort to respond to the requests we’ve judged to be so over-broad or improper that we cannot possibly respond.

As we release more pages of records, I will post here. Please point your browser to this blog for continued updates on our efforts.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Home renovation and the permit and Plan review process FAQ's !

Lakewood is known as “City of Beautiful Homes.” That’s by design, not by accident.
We have a total of 30,000 housing units citywide including 12,700 one- or two-family homes. Comprehensive housing survey and aggressive code enforcement,  the city of Lakewood is doing its part, continuing our Housing Forward initiative.

It’s been a while since my last blog post, and with this year’s unseasonably warmer weather, it seems fitting to re-launch this method of communication with some good information about ways  our residents can keep their housing stock beautiful. 

Purpose of Building & Housing Department.
The building and Housing Department resides within the Department of Public Safety. It does so for a reason. The strength and effectiveness of this department has increased significantly through investment in mobile technology allowing for real-time connectivity to inspection data in the field. This is vastly improved productivity of our code compliance efforts. Additionally, four new positions have been added in the past five years to bolster our inspection capacity. 

When do I need a permit?
Many home improvement projects require a permit.  When in doubt whether a permit is required, check  under the “inspecting, preventing, assisting" tab for  list of required permits or contact the building department. Or, just click here.

Purpose of the permit
The purpose of the permit is document the nature and extent of the work to be performed. It details who will be doing the work, and creates a document to record all subsequent inspections and compliance work. The goal of the inspections is to ensure that the work is performed to a minimum state building code standard. This standard ensures health, safety, and welfare. Welfare is a basic quality of durability and design. All of this effort is focused on making sure the homeowners of Lakewood get what they are paying for.

When is a plan review required?
A key element of the permit process is the plan review. Ohio building codes were expanded in 2011 to require a plan and its review for every permit. This additional step has been a source of angst for many jobs that did not require a plan prior to 2011.

Purpose of the Plan review
The purpose of Plan Review is to make sure safety, health, and quality are achieved. A good plan, while taking more time in the front end of the building cycle, will shorten the total time and reduce the need for re-work, extra cost and delays. The primary focus of the reviews is the systems: electrical, heating, plumbing and structural design. Other design elements include entrance and exit safety in case of fire. This includes doors and windows. 

How long does it take for a Plan Review?
Ohio law allows for up to 30 days for a plan review. As a practical matter, average turnaround time is two weeks. The best way to obtain timely permits requiring plan reviews is to submit a complete and clear plan that meets state standards. Tardy applications for permits, coupled with incomplete plans are the leading cause of delays. The building department is often the scapegoat for many of these delays that are filed late or filed with incomplete plans. 

Questions about my permit and plan Review?
When in doubt about the status of a plan or permit, please call the building department directly at 216-529-6270, email the department at   or just stop by the Building Department located on the basement floor in City Hall. Hours are Monday thru Friday 8:30AM- 4PM. 

We need more building inspectors!
Lakewood has experienced over $10 million dollars in home improvements each of the past four years. This trends looks to continue in a very busy 2017. A key challenge for building departments across the region is a shortage of qualified building inspectors. Contractor experience plus state licenses for various categories such as plumbing, and electrical certifications are required. The City of Lakewood will work with qualified applicants who have the experience but lack the certifications.  We currently have one open position for a licensed inspector and are having difficulty finding qualified applicants. Pass along the word!

There is no doubt that preserving, protecting, and enhancing Lakewood’s second century housing stock is the key to our continued vitality.