"It shouldn't be this difficult." That's what runs through my mind, too often, when it comes to getting public records from the City of Salem.
(Oregon variety; maybe the Massachusetts Salem can conjure up a spell and get records to requestors more easily, given their witch heritage.)
Here's a chronology of my current frustration:
July 29, 2019. Request submitted. I fill out a Public Records Request form, scan it, and email it to the City Recorder's office, which oversees requests. I ask for:
All documents, emails, and other communications relating to the use of the Capital Press building owned by the Salem Alliance Church as a temporary public library by the City of Salem.
August 1, 2019. Cost estimate provided and paid. I get an email from a legal assistant in the City of Salem Legal Department. Rather confusingly, these two items are checked under "In response to your public records request:"
-- The City is the custodian of (maintains) the requested record(s). (IT Dept, City Manager's Office, Urban Development Dept.)
-- The City is uncertain whether it maintains the requested record(s). (CD Library)
I'm perplexed by the "uncertain" statement. What the heck is a CD Library?
We're not talking about ancient history here. The controversial selection of the church-owned building to house a temporary library (because the Salem Alliance Church denies LGBTQ rights) happened this spring and summer. So how could these records not be maintained by the City of Salem?
I'm given a cost estimate of $476.80 to get the records.
Only six hours of staff time are required, plus $10 for a CD. However, two hours are for someone making $89.90 an hour, two hours are for someone making $96.80 an hour, and two hours ae for someone making $46.70 an hour.
Annualizing that hourly wage (40 hours/week times 52 weeks/year), I find that my humble request is being handled by staff costing $186,992, $201,344, and $97,136 a year. Heading to Amazon, I also find that a bundle of 100 recordable CDs can be had for $17, or seventeen cents a CD, with free shipping. So $10 for a CD seems outrageous. As does the hourly staff time costs.
Nonetheless, I drive to the City Recorder's office that same day and pay the amount requested. Why? Choose one or more reasons, all valid: (1) I'm crazy. (2) I'm obsessed with the temporary library issue. (3) I care deeply about LGBTQ rights. (4) I believe in government transparency.
August 16, 2019. Things have changed. Yesterday I saw that I'd gotten an email about my public records request. Since two weeks had passed since I'd forked over the $476.80, at first I thought that the records were being sent to me. But no, the email said something else.
I wanted to let you know that due to the voluminous amount of records associated with your request and the staff time that it will take to review the records, I estimate the records will not be available for release until August 30, 2019, and perhaps even later . To give you some idea of the magnitude of the request, the initial email sweep contained a whopping 2,700+ emails! Right now, we’re in the process of narrowing the scope of the search as much as we can, to reduce the amount of non-responsive records that were captured in the initial email sweep, since we must review each email one-by-one to ensure they’re responsive to the request.
Please note, there may be additional costs for the review time, but we’ll send you an estimate if or when one becomes available.
Thank you for your patience.
Deputy City Recorder
City of Salem
Before I comment on Johnson's message, I want to say that I've found the City Recorder's Office to be, by and large, efficient and responsive to my public records requests. The problems exist elsewhere in the City of Salem bureaucracy, I'm quite confident. That said...
How is it possible that 2,700+ emails are associated with the selection of the Capital Press building owned by the Salem Alliance Church as a temporary library location? Not knowing how it would be possible, naturally now I'm more curious than ever to learn what those emails say.
Which is what I'm going to tell Johnson when I reply to her message: please don't leave out any emails relating to the subject of my public records request. Yet I'm also going to tell her that I don't consider I should have to pay for staff time involved in sorting through irrelevant email messages.
Look, I'm not a highly organized person. But I do get dozens of emails a day, some of them important. For example, for the past few months I've been working on getting a book I wrote ready to be sold on Amazon. (Click here to see the Break Free of Dogma Amazon listing.)
I save the messages from the book designer and Amazon/Kindle Direct Publishing staff in a special folder. Ditto for documents related to the book project. If someone wanted to see all the documents related to my book, it'd be easy for me to find the emails and documents.
So I don't understand why the City of Salem has such difficulty locating communications related to my public records request. It sure seems like City staff should be required to keep all emails and documents concerning a project in specific folders -- mostly digital, but in paper form also when there is no electronic copy.
It seems very strange that someone has to review every one of 2,700+ email messages in order to comply with my public records request. Again, I want all of the relevant communications, and I don't want to have to pay the City of Salem to find communications related to my request that should have been properly organized from the outset.
Also, a public records request shouldn't take a month or more to fulfill, as Johnson says is likely.
Nor should it cost markedly more than the original cost estimate. It sure seems like the City of Salem staff responsible for selecting the Capital Press building for a temporary library would have a very good idea of how many emails and other documents were involved in this effort.
I'm going to ask for a fee waiver, given that my public records request is very much in the public interest, given how controversial it was to choose the church-owned building for a temporary library.
At the very least, I don't believe I should be charged any more than the original cost estimate, especially since it now appears that it is going to take a month or more for the City of Salem to fulfill my public records request.