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‘A’ for effort…

By Staff | Feb 17, 2021

Lee County School Board members got an update this week on the District’s plans to improve the way it processes public records requests.

District staff has soft-launched new software, GovQA, and plans to have it up and running next month.

The software system, estimated to cost $18,500 for the first year and $19,500 in the following years, will help improve the process of public records requests and will provide consistency when filling those requests, officials said.

Superintendent Dr. Greg Adkins said he has directed staff to analyze costs savings, if any, and to evaluate departmentally how to prioritize the fulfillment of public records requests, preferably without requesting additional staff to do so.

Potential cost savings and better service?

Possible shifting of priorities to better emphasize public record request fulfillment?

Sounds like a plan to us.

Technology, and a change in information philosophy, though, has been both a boon and a bane on the public information side.

To the good — and there is much that is good:

Many, many public records are readily and widely available, thanks to the multitude of governmental entities that now routinely post meeting agendas and related documents.

Virtually all governmental bodies and agencies now have websites and post many documents that once required a public records request.

And almost all now have public information staff and departments, “newsrooms” and social media where information is provided on a regular basis.

This is how we were able to post and/or print news of the pending change of garbage and trash collection days for 5,000 households in the north Cape, (Thank you, city of Cape Coral) and a new option that will allow the youngest students entering kindergarten next year an easier entry. (Thank you, School District of Lee County.)

The bad?

While technology and related information philosophy has certainly brought the process of producing public records to the public a long ways, it has not wholly been in the right direction.

The process of providing public records, as the School District of Lee County recognized in its presentation of the soft launch of GovQA, still needs work.

Many of our residents do not have computer access or internet connections, a reality that bit hard when families were forced to distance learning.

While many government web sites, and certainly social media platforms, do a good job of promoting the information officials believe is most important, that is not true for well, the details and the documents, the meeting notices trail, that the public might want in addition to the press release or packet.

Things such as the e-mail trail for the big-ticket items or projects being touted, the internal correspondence of how parks or school construction plans got changed, for example.

It is in these circumstances where public records requests are usually required.

And it is why public records fulfillment is — or should be — a top priority. In every instance.

Public record production, along with public meeting notification, are among the few state-mandated, state constitution-guaranteed duties imposed upon all government entities and all agencies and boards conducting the public’s business.

To put the school district’s new public information request process into context, we requested similar information from other governmental entities in Lee County, including the city of Cape Coral — which already uses GovQA and similar software — the Cape Coral Police and Fire Departments, Lee County and the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. We asked them to share their fulfillment “goals,” the time it typically takes to fill public requests, and at what point they start charging for staff time needed to retrieve and redact those records.

The school district’s window of 48-hours to respond is not too out of line compared to other entities. The 30-to-45 day fulfillment goal? Not so much. Among the responses received, it is the longest fulfillment window tendered.

Thirty days, much less 45 days, is a very long time when you’re waiting to obtain something that might be a little more complicated or voluminous — and it’s even more cumbersome if it stretches to business days instead of calendar.

While officials throughout the county say “most” records are produced much more quickly, therein lies the rub.

Despite the technology, despite the pro-information philosophy that has boosted “communications” staff and budgets, public record requests take more time and too often cost much more than they used to — or should.

The reason is imbedded in governments’ drafting policies around their interpretation of the statutory “reasonable amount of time” to produce the record– defined by the courts as the time it takes to retrieve and, if necessary redact, the document — as well to what they can up-charge for an “excessive” request.

Just seven years ago Pat Gleason, General Counsel with the State Attorney General’s Office, opined that, given the time it takes staff to estimate cost, get back to the requestor, then bill and collect money above the cost of copying the documents, a practical definition of “excessive time” was four hours.

Since then, and through legislative intervention, it’s now 15 minutes for many agencies and formulating cost estimates are now part of the timetable.

A couple of things.

Again, we thank the district for its efforts to improve its public records production process.

We give additional thanks to its communications office — and the communications offices of the city, CCPD, County and Sheriff’s Office — for their prompt, same-day responses to related policy questions this week. That’s not atypical.

But, as they say, the devil is in the details, in this case the policy details.

If public records request fulfillment — public information at its primary source — is truly a priority of any agency, make it so. Close the fulfillment window to a crack for there should be little “air” in the production timetable, save for the most voluminous of requests.

— Neighbor editorial