Leander City Council

Leander Council adopts fees for open record requests

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The Leander City Council voted 4-to-2 last week to impose new fees for open record requests and approved setting one unified mailing address and email address to receive all requests.

Council members Jason Shaw and Christine Sederquist voted against the measure. 

Under the new fees, citizens will be charged 10 cents per page for printed copies of public records and $15 per hour for labor costs related to compiling the requested information. However, the city will not apply these fees if the request involves fewer than 50 pages and does not require staff to pull files out of storage.

The new rules also installs fees for requesting records in a variety of formats, including on CDs and other physical formats.

The new charges duplicate the state's rules and regulations on what cities are allowed to charge and keeps within the range of charges other cities and government entities are currently charging. 

Additionally, the changes to city ordinances will default the city's rules to any new rules the state adopts in the future.

Shaw said he would prefer to see the city publicly post on its website all documents provided to citizens in response to their open record requests. Sederquist concurred with his suggestion, stating she had also planned to suggest this idea.

They argued a significant factor in the recent surge of open record requests has been people submitting identical requests, particularly on issues that have drawn attention, like the library controversy, because they have no way of knowing what other people have requested. They argued having the items shared in this manner would allow people to see if what they need is already available, noting many people have even requested the city's spreadsheet of what other open record requests have been submitted. 

Hill said he would support the idea of posting the results of the request as long as they don't contain details about active economic development negotiations, which arguably would have been exempt from disclosure by the Texas Attorney General before being provided to the citizen. 

He also said he would like the names who submitted the requests posted so "maybe people can see who has taken up so much of our city staff's time...the state gives remedies for people who abuse it. I wish we could as well."

Shaw said they could post who requested but strongly objected to making an issue about who was requesting records, arguing citizens have the right to request any records they want for whatever reason.

City legal staff suggested they consult with city IT staff to determine what is feasible with the city's technology and then bring back a proposal at a future meeting. 

Shaw also raised concerns about how quickly city staff could rack up hours - thus have more hours that would have to be billed - when completing a request.

Increased demand for records

The change will be the first time the city has officially adopted charging for open records requests. 

The city has seen a significant increase in the number of data requests by the public in recent years with subjects ranging from email and text messages by council members to data related to the Leander Public Library controversy. 

The number of requests has grown from 334 in 2017 to 569 so far in 2019. Additionally, each request may contain multiple items.  The city estimates it received 2,361 separate item requests so far in 2019.

In fact, the council voted 5-to-1 to fund two additional city staff positions through the city's General Fund reserves - another building inspector and a second deputy city secretary position to specifically help handle open records requests.

Sederquist was the only opposing vote, objecting to what she called "our failure to plan" by failing to include the two positions in the recent city budget. She argued they could have funded these jobs in the budget and still cut the tax rate but instead they prioritized cutting the rate even lower, which resulted in funding the positions  in a less productive manner.

New address

The proposal would also allow the city to designate a single mailing address and single email address for receiving open record requests, and would establish an online form for submitting the requests.

City legal staff explained having a single address both helps staff track these request in a more efficient manner and helps protect the city when requests are sent to the wrong individuals, such as a council member instead of city staff. Under state law, once a single address is established, the city doesn't have to consider the request as official and doesn't have to respond within the state's strict deadlines for fulfilling request until it is sent to the official address. 

Additionally, state law dictates the city can establish a form to help citizens organize their requests. However, state law still allows citizens to submit their requests in whatever format they choose, including in-person or via email.

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