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City sees large increase in number of public information requests

Monday, September 26, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Austin officials who handle public information requests are on pace to set a record for the number of those documents processed by the city in one year.


According to the city’s Media Relations Manager, Reyne Telles, the requests have in general also become both broader and more vague. Telles said that in 2007, the city processed just over 4,000 requests; in 2010, that number jumped to more than 8,000; and this year, officials are on track to settle roughly 10,000 submissions.


Telles said that city employees don’t keep track of their time in a manner that would allow his department to calculate the cost to taxpayers. However, he speculated about the cause of the jump. “People theorize that (Public Information Requests) had some influence in our recent election,” he told In Fact Daily. “I think that the publicity that resulted reminded people of the process, and that they have the ability to file a (request).”


Figures from the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott would seem to confirm what Telles has seen. In all of 2010, the city submitted 282 requests for “open records letter rulings.” Through Sept. 1 of this year, Austin already submitted 236 such requests.


Telles told In Fact Daily via email that “requests have become increasingly comprehensive, complex and vague in nature in the past nine months.”


He cited several examples, noting that city is “receiving many requests for ‘any and all communication between any city staff member,’” he wrote. He noted that there are 12,000 City of Austin employees. “This requires the city to request clarification about who the requestor would like us to search,” he added. “In many instances, requestors refuse to do so (or even refuse to specify a department of possible individuals), and this ultimately slows down our process considerably.”


Telles also said that many of the city’s requestors ultimately deny that the information provided to them is wholly responsive to their request. Such statements are often followed up with a request for an opinion from the Texas Attorney General’s office. Telles said that “creates a significant backlog in our process when we consistently have to address the concerns of requestors who refute what is provided, then assert they will complain to the AG, or file a lawsuit.”


For Telles, the issue wasn’t so much with the requests as it was with the uncooperative attitude brought by many of the requestors. “Please know we are always happy to fulfill requests,” he wrote, “We just ask that individuals work with us to help make the process more effective and efficient for all parties involved.”


Telles says that many of those who handle the requests are administrative assistants. “They’re doing 27 other things, and this has been added,” he said. He provided the numbers and other information in response to a specific open records request from In Fact Daily.

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