In the past seven months, handling requests for public records has become much larger part of her work and the time and budget of other city employees.
“Before, you would get one or two a week,” Edwards said. “It’s not really hard to track, and it’s more one subject or one item. Easy enough.”
Since about September, Edwards said, the city has steadily received about half a dozen requests a week.
There is a strict process the city of Tracy must follow for all requests for public records. According to Edwards, the city must respond to the person who asks for the material within 10 days.
The city clerk, who is charged with processing all requests, said citizens can make verbal or written requests for any record the city holds.
“If the request is unclear or I think they might be looking for something they are not necessarily asking correctly for, it’s my duty to help them get the records they want,” she said.
Edwards logs the request and notifies the assistant city manager and the city attorney, who must review all documents to make sure nothing needs to be excluded because of ongoing investigations or personnel matters.
“Then I will contact the appropriate department, depending on what the record is for,” Edwards said.
All of those steps are taken on the first day of the request in order to meet the 10-day deadline.
When Edwards gets the documents back from the departments, she reads each page to see if anything needs to be edited and then sends the documents to the city manager’s office.
When she gets the requests back from the city attorney, Edwards completes those edits and contacts the person who requested the material.
“If it’s voluminous, then they can come in and review whatever records we’ve established exist,” she said.
The Press reviewed every request for the past 15 months and found 90 requests between Aug. 22 and March 18. There had been 28 between Jan. 1, 2013, and Aug. 21.
Edwards said the volume of the documents requested was also out of the ordinary.
“They’re usually very specific and not very broad — one topic. What wasn’t as typical was documents spanning multiple years.” Edwards said of the recent spate of requests. “They’re all-encompassing. It’s all emails. It’s all credit cards. And it covers multiple years.”
The Press found one request for financial expenditure reports from Jan. 1, 2001, through October 2013 that generated 967 pages. The requestor took 65 pages and left the rest.
“We are going above and beyond as far as giving everything to them,” Edwards said. “We are producing more than is taken away.”
That kind of sudden increase has ripple effects across the city government, according to Administrative Services Director Jenny Haruyama. Haruyama is the head of the city’s finance division, which had to handle the bulk of the requests from the community.
“Most of the requests that were coming in were all credit card related or just checking on the financial stewardship of the city. We have that responsibility to bring those documents forward,” Haruyama said.
The requests for credit card records, which began with an inquiry into the former city manager’s use of a city credit card for personal items, were particularly wide-reaching.
In fact, Haruyama said 14 staff members across the city conservatively spent 300 hours pulling records and making copies to fulfill public information requests just for credit card records. Those figures do not reflect the other types of requests.
“Just the cost for the credit card alone, in staff time, was $15,000. If you want to break that apart, $11,000 was regular hours and $4,000 was overtime,” she said.
Haruyama said those staff members sometimes had to do that work to the exclusion of other duties.
“The individuals in the finance department that are doing the bulk of the work, they handle our check runs, our accounts payable, our accounts receivable,” Haruyama said. “These are things that they have to stay on top of. They need to make sure they are paying their vendors on time. These are the things that are being put to the side so that we’re able to address the records requests.”
Edwards said she also had to reprioritize her work.
“Some of my timelines are not being met. For example, a big piece of my responsibility is the minutes. I have a commitment to my boss that I’m not more than 30 days behind on them. That’s not the case right now,” she said. “On my own accord, I find myself taking stuff home and working extra hours.”
When asked if the city staff had to delay city business that needed council attention because of the workload, Haruyama said she knew of items that had been pulled from council agendas because the staff had not had time to make them ready.
“The time you spend on your (capital improvement projects) and your fee schedule and your budget goes to the wayside,” she said. “We had no hiccups, but a lot of it is managers having to delay things.”
The records requestors
The Press review of public records requests found three members of the community who made the majority of the requests in the past seven months. Businessman Dave Helm, who made 16 such requests through March 18, and lawyer Steve Nicolaou, who made 12 requests, were not available for in-person interviews but answered questions via email. Paul Miles, who made 18 requests, did not respond to requests for an interview.
Nicolaou wrote that he filed the PRA requests because it was his “legal right to do so.”
“What was the rationale and thought process behind certain actions that were undertaken by the city, especially as they pertained to land use issues concerning the airport,” Nicolaou wrote of what he had hoped to learn through his requests.
Regarding his reason for making 12 different requests, Nicolaou wrote: “It’s my meticulous nature.”
The lawyer said that Tracy residents have benefited from his requests.
“I hope the citizens have realized they have a right to know what their local government is up to and how they conduct the people’s business, to ask questions, and to request documents that are public,” he wrote.
Helm wrote that he made 16 requests because “Public Records belong to the public and as such are available to citizens for review. I filed the requests for information in an attempt to obtain answers to questions I had about the way city government was being operated and to ascertain how public monies were being spent.”
When asked what he hoped to learn, Helm wrote: “The truth.”
Helm wrote that because of his inquiries, a city manager who “abused the public’s trust” was fired; a comprehensive review of the city’s credit card policies was promised; the airport runway was returned to a length over 4,000 feet; fuel prices at the airport went down after the city terminated its contract with Turlock Air, the former fuel operator, and took over running the pumps; and the City Council has pledged to restore public confidence.
“I believe the time and effort spent thus far have yielded some positive results,” Helm wrote. “More needs to be done, but people are paying attention to how our city is run, and that is a good thing.”
He added that he had filed multiple requests because he had new questions as he reviewed the documents he was given and because, he wrote, “The city would narrowly interpret my requests and exclude information in an attempt to conceal it.”
Haruyama said that city department leaders have talked informally about hiring people to handle the workload resulting from the increase in public records requests, but the city does not yet have the budget to do so.
She added that residents who want their questions answered have alternatives.
A financial software system, which was planned last year before the increase in records requests and set to be launched in June, with upgrades through the next fiscal year, will offer residents insight into city finances.
“It’s more of a layman’s way of being able to sort information on various funds,” Haruyama said.
The city also has a kiosk on the second floor of City Hall, 333 Civic Center Plaza, where the public can see records electronically rather than sifting through printed copies of records.
“If I have a public records request, I can go straight to that kiosk and schedule a time, and I can view it at that kiosk electronically without going through paper,” she said.
Haruyama said she believes city records are the property of the people.
“If you feel that you need to make a PRA, that opportunity is there, because it’s the public’s right to do that,” she said. “However, there are also alternatives to making a formal request, where you can seek out conversations with appropriate department heads or the interim city manager and try to work through your questions. That might be more efficient use of time, rather than taking staff off of normal, everyday responsibilities that support the community.”
• Contact Michael Ellis Langley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 830-4231.