New Approach to Responding to Public Records Requests – the Kirkland Model
Many local governments are struggling to balance their obligations under the Public Records Act with their existing staff and financial resources. Local governments want to provide the fullest access to records possible, but they must do this within practical limitations of limited staff time and other resource constraints. The City of Kirkland engaged in an 18-month process to deal with this problem and adopted a new approach for dealing with public records requests in July 2013. The city's effort was recognized by the Washington Coalition for Open Government, which awarded the City of Kirkland its Key Award for their efforts.
The new Kirkland approach has two primary purposes. One is for the city council to determine what constitutes a reasonable commitment of city resources for responding to public records requests. This determination will be made as a part of the budget process.
The second is to enhance the transparency and certainty of public access to records through the establishment of public records logs, best practices for responses, and better communication with requestors.
It is beyond the scope of this blog to outline the entire process adopted by Kirkland, but one key aspect of the new system is to sort public records requests into five categories according to the nature, volume, and availability of the requested records. More complex records requests will be tracked in a separate queue by category. Typically, earlier requests would be processed before later requests, but processing of an earlier request can be suspended to allow for the processing of later, simpler requests. It is hoped that this will allow for more efficient handling of the majority of shorter, less complex requests.
In addition, transparency will be increased by maintaining an electronic tracking system that will be accessible online for any citizen to review. The tracking system will post logs of records requests, completed responses to records requests, and the status of records requests still being processed.
The city also established two staff teams to implement and manage the public records disclosure process. One is a Public Disclosure Coordinating Team, composed of the clerk, deputy clerk, and key staff from each department. This team is responsible for implementing the ordinance and managing records requests. The second is the Public Disclosure Steering Team, composed of the city manager, director of finance, city attorney, and city clerk. The Steering Team provides guidance to the Coordinating Team and also reviews decisions if an appeal from the city response to a records request is made by the requestor.
Kirkland recognizes that its approach is innovative and untested in many respects and also that it may not be suitable for all jurisdictions. It is a work in progress and may need future revisions and adjustments based on practical experience in implementing it. However, the city deserves kudos for attempting to deal with this problem in an open and creative way.
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