Open records requests soaring in Richardson
10:58 PM CST on Thursday, December 31, 2009
By IAN McCANN / The Dallas Morning News
A spike in open records requests is forcing Richardson to thaw a hiring freeze and add a third staff member to the city secretary's office.
City Secretary Pamela Schmidt said she and her assistant have little time to do much other than fulfill requests, which have risen from 257 in 2008 to more than 300 in 2009.
"We need staff," she said. "We need to get this done."
An additional records clerk will cost the city about $58,000 in salary and benefits. The clerk will work on requests as well as handle records management.
Schmidt, president of the Texas Municipal Clerks Association, said that there is no pattern across the state or region of increasing numbers of requests. But, she said, some cities are experiencing increases similar to Richardson's.
Reasons for higher numbers of requests vary. In part, Schmidt said, the public is more aware that they are entitled to information from their government. Also, with residents able to file requests by e-mail or through city Web sites, it's easier than ever to do so.
Richardson resident Nathan Morgan said that the only way to get questions answered completely is to file an open records request. In Richardson, he said, more people are interested in City Hall than in the past.
"More people are becoming aware of questionable activities, so they're working to find out what's going on," Morgan said.
He alone has filed 38 requests, he said. Some of those are follow-up requests because an initial query did not produce, as he said, "the right document to get the right information."
But individuals aren't the only requesters. Schmidt said more businesses are asking for records – one of Richardson's frequent requesters gets a list of certificates of occupancy issued each week.
While Richardson is adding staff to handle open records requests, other cities have used technology to manage records.
Coppell has seen its record requests plummet over the past decade, from about 3,500 in 1999 to about 600 in 2009. City Secretary Libby Ball said five people accounted for 95 percent of the requests in 1999.
She attributes the drop to two factors: using a document management software called Laserfiche, and seeing some of her most frequent requesters stop asking for records.
"According to Laserfiche, we were one of the first to go across the board, putting everything up," Ball said. "One man was concerned we were hiding stuff. Once we put in Laserfiche, he could see everything out there."
It's not an inexpensive solution, costing tens of thousands of dollars, depending on a city's needs. But it can give the public access to an array of records, from archived minutes to deeds and permits.
"We try to keep our citizens as informed as we possibly can," Ball said.