Public records requests cost city thousands
by Michael Langley
Apr 25, 2014 | 7281 views | 29 29 comments | 36 36 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Sandra Edwards handles Public Records Act requests for the city of Tracy. As city clerk for the past nine years, Edwards’ job requires her to not only handle every PRA request but also to read every page of every request.

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.

Requests triple

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.”

Alternatives exist

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 mlangley@tracypress.com or 830-4231.

 
Comments
(29)
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Wobbley
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April 30, 2014
I'd wonder why one person can't handle ONE request per day? Doesn't seem extraneous.

Also, this might have something to do with the timeliness of blotter reports on TP?

Also, if most of the requests are for credit card records, put them all on line once. Is the city obligated to provide hard copy on all requests???
MrSycamore
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April 27, 2014
And we're still talking about this! Nice reporting Tracy Press.
rayderfan
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April 27, 2014
Mr. Langley; I just found this article in the Stockton Record.

Are you planning to write one too?

By The Record

April 27, 2014 12:00 AMTRACY - City residents and businesspeople are invited to a community meeting to provide input in the development of a candidate profile for a new city manager.

The meeting will begin at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Tracy City Council chambers at City Hall, 333 Civic Center Plaza.

Representatives from a recruitment firm, Peckham & McKenney, selected by the City Council will conduct the meeting. Residents who are unable to attend the meeting can share comments by contacting Bobbi Peckham at bobbi@peckhamandmckenney.com or (866) 912-1919.

"It is so important that we gather input from the community on the qualities and qualifications that residents and businesses seek for our next city manager. We want to ensure that the community as a whole is kept in mind when selecting the ideal candidate," Mayor Brent Ives said.

The leadership position held by Leon Churchill for about six years was vacated March 5 when the City Council voted unanimously to terminate Churchill's contract after determining he had violated city financial policies.

rayderfan
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April 27, 2014
I am certain this information was released last week as these recruiting agencies need some time to organize these activities.

I am curious when you were planning to publish an article on this and how soon? I have reviewed your Friday print edition and it was not included.

Is there a reason for this?

Are you waiting until the last minute so the public doesn't have time to arrange their schedule so they can attend?

Did you withhold this article so the people who only read the print edition would not be able to attend?

Is this how a news paper keeps a community updates?

I, for one, would ask that you begin to truly evaluate your relationship with whom ever the Minister of Propaganda is at City Hall and begin doing your job. You have clearly let the public down and you have clearly done your best to limit public involvement in the activities of their local government.
behonestguys
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April 26, 2014
Council is willing to spend $450,000 to rename Naglee Road to Auto Mall Way for the benefit of a few car dealers and that seems to be ok. But spending g a fraction of that to get to the truth is a waste and almost a crime based on Langley's spin. Next time go look at the names of all the Tracyites on the Veterans Memorial who died to preserve our freedoms Mr. Langley to make sure the government looks out for the interest off all people and not just the fat cats. The $15000 spent by the City is chump change compared to their sacrifices .
C3TJ
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April 26, 2014
Don't forget we're going to rename MacArthur in honor of the ghost town of an outlet mall. Money well spent according to our illustrious council and probably a similar amount when it comes time to change it back.
Sero7
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April 25, 2014
Why would the press even run this story? As much money as this city waste on pet projects that matter to few people, who cares what public records cost. They are just that Public and we the taxpayers pay for it anyway so my feeling are that I am glad Mr Helm exercised his right to use what is available to him and anyone else in the city. Oh and Sandra Edwards doing her job, well that is what she gets paid for so do it. Oh and the Tracy Press being in bed with the City, well of course! Surprise Surprise! As others have mentioned, use the power of your vote to sweep out members of the

Good Old Boys Club. This is just a typical political scenario were people in power think they are above all others, and are only accountable for there own self. That don't know what to do when there authority is being questioned. Wrong! From here on out, everything these people do will be very closely scrutinized and no, the citizens of Tracy should never ever have confidence in it's City Officials, now or at anytime. Part of this cities problems to this very day are of a political nature. Remember to vote and vote wisely. Thank you to Mr Helm for all your hard work!!
ketchupsavegetable
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April 25, 2014
The headline "Public records requests cost city thousands" isn't especially subtle, but why couldn't the Tracy Press go all the way and print "Public records requests a waste of money and none of your business to begin with."

I'll put it this way regarding the TP. It's like when Lassie used to do a headstand, roll over, bark, and point at the well. Invariably, somebody would say, "Lassie's trying to tell us something." It is the same situation with the Tracy Press and Leon Churchill.
DHELM
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April 25, 2014
What Mr. Langley asked, how I answered, how it got reported.

There were no alternatives available at the I filed the requests, I asked questions and I made calls, didn't get the truth.

Now...there are alternatives, folks at city hall say they are more open to public inquiry..weren't before. Records, and the check registry are now going to published...should have been before!

I asked for credit cards from Jan 2009 to present, not 2001.

Interesting that the Tracy Press made a similar request, but oddly, failed to report that.

If it cost 15k to recalibrate the culture at city hall, point out flawed accounting, make changes to terrible policies and practices and rid the city wasteful abusive procedures and make city officials accountable...it was money well spent.

This town hires consultants for just about everything costings 100's of thousands of dollars, why doesn't someone look into that?

Having asked the question...I might just look into that.
DHELM
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April 25, 2014
Good morning Mr. Helm.

As of 18 March you have filed requests for public records from the city of Tracy 16 times within the past year, so:

1. Why did you file those requests? (i understand there may be multiple answers to this question)

2. What did you hope to learn?

3. What did you learn?

4. How have the citizens of Tracy benefited from what you have learned?

Thank you for your attention. My filing deadline for this story is tomorrow.

Respectfully,

1: 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. People, myself included, have raised concerns about several issues and did not receive complete information or in some instances were not told the truth.

2: The truth.

DHELM
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April 25, 2014
3: The City Manager abused his credit card on multiple occasions over a period of several years. He was delinquent several times and bounced two personal checks to American Express which canceled the City of Tracy’s credit card accounts. Zane Johnston covered for the City Manager, obtained another credit card for him and transferred the balance. Johnston did not perform his fiduciary responsibilities. Moss, Levy and Hartzheim, the outside auditors, brought the issue forward to the council, but did not report it in the comprehensive annual financial report. The matter was swept under the carpet and when I questioned the accuracy of the CAFR report after noting other discrepancies the mayor acknowledged Churchill had violated policy and that they had dealt with him. The Mayor indicated they had tightened up policy and Churchill had changed his behavior. Further investigation proved that was a lie, Churchill had continued to abuse his credit card, he received two reprimands and was suspended, albeit with pay, for a week. Ms. Haruyama gave Churchill another copy of the policy and cautioned him two more times, documenting her conversations in separate e-mails which I located after submitting another PRA. Churchill’s behavior moderated but did not change; neither did the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem’s unfaltering support for him, both publically and privately until they fired him after a closed session meeting.

The airport issues, the water and sewer giveaway, the abuse of credit cards by other employees, the Fuel Service Operation at the airport and numerous other issues where the city has acted in a questionable manner were subjects of interest. The issue of obtaining complete information and what records should be released has also been the subject of inquiry. There were approximately 160 credit cards in use by the city and transactions less than $10,000.00 were not routinely checked.

DHELM
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April 25, 2014
4. The City Manager abused the public’s trust and violated his ethical obligations to the citizens of this community. The mayor and mayor pro tem pledged to keep him around because was good for business. After defending him, they went into closed session and unanimously voted to fire him.
DHELM
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April 25, 2014
The City has hired an outside auditor, walking away from their 10 year “relationship” with the previous auditors (whom have been sued by several other agencies for poor accounting practices) and has pledged to perform a comprehensive audit for the past 5 years, report their findings at a series of town hall meetings, and have pledged to hold all employees accountable for past abuses. Chief Hampton is involved and that gives me great comfort because he is an honest man that has a documented history of excellence.

A comprehensive review of the purchasing and credit card policies has been promised. Further, the city has reduced the number of credit cards by 50% and that number will reportedly decline in the coming months as the city attempts to implement “best practices.”

The airport runway has been returned to in excess of 4,000 feet . That allows for 1 home to be built per 5 acres, rather than 4-9 homes per acre in the outer approach and departure zone, ensuring safe operations, the ability to expand operations and act as an engine for economic development. The city took the fuel service operations back over after evicting the previous fuel service operator. Prices have dropped about $1.50 per gallon and our airport is once again competitive.

The city council has pledged to attempt to restore the public’s confidence and I believe they have a better understanding of whom they work for and the fact and they too are accountable to the citizens. I believe the time and effort spent thus far have yielded some positive results. More needs to be done but people are paying attention to how our city is run, and that is a good thing. The city is now publishing the check register so we can see how our money is spent and the working on technology so public records can be accessed electronically. Things need to change and they starting too, which is a good thing.

Transparency, accountability, and fairness in government, should be our collective goal. I hope the citizens of our community will hold the council accountable for their behavior, good and bad, in November. We have been blessed with a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, drafted by our forefathers and we have a responsibility to honor those ideals and do the best we can, to admit our mistakes and to leave something better for our children.

While on the subject of admitting mistakes, I took Maciel’s comments personally. While I do not regret confronting him, I should have remained dispassionate and moderated my language, for that I apologize. Dave Helm

dancingfool
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April 26, 2014
Paul miles gets his records and discovers that the police chief is corrupt. So, dhelm goes down there trying to prove paul wrong. Doesnt really find a molehill and proclaims that Hampton is not a crook. What a crock.
DHELM
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April 25, 2014
4. The City Manager abused the public’s trust and violated his ethical obligations to the citizens of this community. The mayor and mayor pro tem pledged to keep him around because was good for business. After defending him, they went into closed session and unanimously voted to fire him.

The City has hired an outside auditor, walking away from their 10 year “relationship” with the previous auditors (whom have been sued by several other agencies for poor accounting practices) and has pledged to perform a comprehensive audit for the past 5 years, report their findings at a series of town hall meetings, and have pledged to hold all employees accountable for past abuses. Chief Hampton is involved and that gives me great comfort because he is an honest man that has a documented history of excellence.

A comprehensive review of the purchasing and credit card policies has been promised. Further, the city has reduced the number of credit cards by 50% and that number will reportedly decline in the coming months as the city attempts to implement “best practices.”

The airport runway has been returned to in excess of 4,000 feet . That allows for 1 home to be built per 5 acres, rathe
rayderfan
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April 25, 2014
I couldn't agree more LeonsFired. It's good to know the citizens of Tracy are seeing this for exactly what it is; an effort, by the Tracy Press, and the "Good Old Boys Club" to try to restrict open government.

It doesn't surprise me that Maciel is one of the biggest opponents to Helm and his requests, since Maciel appears to be the puppet of the "Good Old Boys".

The negative writing by the Tracy Press is a rallying cry for the voters. Down with the status quo and let's vote all the incumbents out so we can start over and clean things up once and for all.
dd95376
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April 25, 2014
Given recent events one would suspect and hope that the number one requester of records would be the Tracy Press.
C3TJ
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April 25, 2014
Exactly. Sadly, it appears the TP wants to cheerlead for the old guard....
LeonsFired
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April 25, 2014
Why don't we just change the Tracy Press' name to Voice of The Good Ole Boys Club- Outsiders Not Welcome? The continuous negative writing about the Tracy citizens inquiries into our governments business is only rallying citizens to vote against the status quo.

I feel NO sympathy for city workers having to work quickly to respond to their customer's requests. It's called doing your job. I'm sure it will be used as an excuse down the road for something not getting done. We missed our budget, let's blame Helm!

Our city will always be held back with this small time thinking and politics, local paper in bed with weak local leadership.
rosa62
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April 25, 2014
The need to make these types of requests wouldn't have been necessary had city officials been open and honest in the first place. This feeling of distrust goes back more than 20 years.

The distrust has been the product of city officials being dishonest, misleading the public and avoiding responsibility for their actions.

It's about time people started asking questions. Keep up the good work Mr.'s Helm, Nicolau and Miles.
vocallocal
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April 25, 2014
Boo Hoo... Sunshine law is soooo much extra work, my fingers hurt. Mr. Langley, what is the slant for the piece this story.

City Clerk is put upon to do her job? Back breaking.
jtashjian
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April 25, 2014
What is the cost of integrity and transparency in the city government Mr. Langley?
hohohumdrum
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April 25, 2014
When I first heard people talking about Leon's credit cards I was appalled. I thought how could he spend hundreds of thousands of dollars. Then I told a friend about the hundreds of thousands of dollars. She said, grow up. Apparently nobody actually knows the numbers, but it was probably less than $70.99. With all the other complaints I read about this and that - well it seems to me that the public records cost the city more.

Bottom line. Yawn.

And I don't say that lightly. I was very upset at first. But what really irks me is some moron who wants others to get upset about something that cost less than the moron himself.
rayderfan
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April 25, 2014
It was alot more than $70.99 hohohumdrum. It was more like $6,000 and he tried to pay some of it back with bad checks.
dancingfool
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April 26, 2014
Who cares. We lost Tesla and got a police chief that screwed up Turlock. Everybody knows he is not a businessman. Nice, but just not the sharpest tool in the shed.
rosa62
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April 26, 2014
I care dancingfool. The idea that Churchill used his city credit card to pay personal purchases makes me angry. For someone who is given that much responsibility and granted the public trust he sure took complete advantage of the situation and abused his authority. He deserved to be fired.
dancingfool
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April 26, 2014
Who cares? Hes gone now.

The real question is Hampton corrupt.

Paul Miles says Hampton is corrupt.

Fire Gary Hampton.
hohohumdrum
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April 26, 2014
I think Hampton doesn't listen to people well. He seems likeable at first, but deeper into the conversation I felt like he didn't really care. I could see why we lost Tesla. And I could see why Paul could say he is corrupt. In Turlock he did not take a pay raise to be interim city manager for six months, but to be assistant city manager for just six days gave himself a $15,000 dollar check. This was after saying he was considering retirement from Turlock. Corrupt retirement bonus? I do believe so. But more importantly, I think he is stubborn. By that I mean, I think he likes Helm trying to pick a fist fight with Mike. I could be wrong. But I don't think so. I think Hampton's retirement couldn't come early enough. Go take $15,000 dollars from some other community and take your bar brawling buddies with you.
rayderfan
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April 26, 2014
ho; I'm not sure where you're getting your information from regarding the alledged $15,000 check but I would like for you to provide a reference so we can check it out and make sure it's accurate.

Regarding the rest of your comment, I take it that's your opinion and there are no facts to back up your claims, right?

Either way, you're entitled to your opinion, as others are to theirs. As you say;

"Bottom line. Yawn."



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