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.
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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.

4 comments:

  1. The next 2,379 pages of records related to the negotiations and deliberations over the future of Lakewood Hospital and healthcare in Lakewood were released today and may be viewed here: http://www.onelakewood.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/LKWD-KOREY.pdf

    ReplyDelete
  2. The next 1,904 pages of records related to the negotiations and deliberations over the future of Lakewood Hospital and healthcare in Lakewood were released on July 10, 2017.

    162 of those pages can be viewed here: http://www.onelakewood.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Bates-Numbered-LKWD-MDGN-SMMRS_Redacted.pdf

    And the additional 1742 pages can be viewed here: http://www.onelakewood.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/Bates-Numbered-LKWD-HRN-CNSLTNG_Redacted.pdf

    ReplyDelete
  3. The next 775 pages of records related to the negotiations and deliberations over the future of Lakewood Hospital and healthcare in Lakewood were released today.

    534 of those pages can be viewed here: http://www.onelakewood.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/LKWD-PRR-296.pdf

    And the additional 241 pages can be viewed here: http://www.onelakewood.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/LKWD-PRR297-319.pdf

    ReplyDelete
  4. The next 17,160 pages of records related to the negotiations and deliberations over the future of Lakewood Hospital and healthcare in Lakewood were released today and may be viewed here: http://www.onelakewood.com/accordions/healthcare-related-public-records-released-81717/ .

    ReplyDelete