The value of the city's trove of records can perhaps best be measured in the number of inquiries from businesses and attorneys.
Of the approximately 98 requests for open records made to the city in July and August -- excluding those for police, fire or 911 records -- at least half involved inquiries either citing a business need or were from commercial entities or lawyers.
And the single most frequent requester of records wasn't a nosy journalist, but Terracon, a Kansas-based engineering consulting firm. The company, which has a Tulsa office, filed 10 open records requests with the city in July and August. Each request asked about a specific address or location in the city, seeking to obtain "available building permits and/or inspection records." The company's requests noted that they were "conducting an environmental assessment on the referenced site and would appreciate any information you have."
But the city receives all manner of requests, and has recently been wrestling with how to best handle the inquiries. Each department has at least one records custodian assigned to handle open records requests, but the custodians -- 74 in total -- have other duties.
Since April, Wendy Martin has held the title of records manager, a newly created position that's part of the city clerk's budget but is envisioned as a resource for all departments.
Martin said one problem is that the city has no systematic way to track records requests -- so it doesn't know, for example, the average time it takes to respond to such inquiries.
"We've never had somebody who's really thinking about records from a records management perspective," Martin said -- adding that some changes could be coming soon.
For example, she said the city is working to develop a system that might assign each open records request a tracking number. Another change in development is creating an online form that could be submitted when requesting a public record, though Martin said requests submitted by other written means would still be accepted.
Another change coming may involve an increase in fees for some records. State law describes how individual government entities may charge fees when requests "would clearly cause excessive disruption of the essential functions of the public body."
"We are looking at labor costs," Martin said, explaining the city is undergoing the first review of an open records policy since 1995.
Discussions have involved the city's legal and information technology departments.
Though the city has come under fire from The Tulsa World for slow responses to that paper's open records requests, only 11 requests were from self-identified journalists among the 96 requests received in July and August, for non-public safety records.
It took the city varying amounts of time to compile the open records requests in response to an Oct. 29 records request from Urban Tulsa Weekly. Building permit center requests were available to UTW within two days, and requests submitted to most departments were made available to UTW within 16 days.
However, requests submitted to police weren't released to UTW until Dec. 6; requests submitted for fire and 911 records had yet to be released at press time. City spokeswoman Michelle Allen said those records were still pending legal review. (Such records sometimes include personal medical information protected by privacy laws.)
Martin said it took the city some time to respond to UTW's request in part because of a lack of uniformity in how each city department keeps track of requests. While each department follows the same city guidelines, "the goal is to make application of the process more consistent," Martin said.
What do people want from the city? Requests focused on finding records related to a single address were by far the most popular type of request. About 50 requests were made to the city's permit center. Most of the requests were made using a form, with city workers identifying if a record was not found and, if so, for what reason. Of these 50 requests, more than 20 times either the entire request or a portion of the request was not fulfilled because no record was found, the forms state.
Many of these requests were business related, but others were not. Michael Cummins, a former Tulsa resident, requested information about the layout of an apartment building in which he lived as a child.
"I never filed a police report, but someone there had molested me," Cummins said, clarifying that, decades later, he actually did report the abuse to police.
With the apartment layout, he had hoped to cross-reference the apartment numbers with city directory information to get the name of the teenage girl he said abused him when he was nine years old. But the city told him the records from that era weren't digitized, so they had nothing for him.
Families sometimes turn to the city for help sorting out property claims. One request from a woman sought help from the city to locate some burial plots possibly purchased by her father, who had been afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. The city did not have any records to share with her.
Some requesters interviewed by UTW said they were pleased with the city's response to their open records request.
"They gave us the information that we requested. We didn't have any problem at all," said Chad Neuens, a manager with Neuens Mitchell & Freese law firm. He had requested electrical permits associated with a specific address over the last 10 years, and said there was "no delay in receiving what we needed, so we were pleased with the process."
Others less so.
"I think, number one, that the timeliness of the responses is absolutely ridiculous," said Michael Rider, president of the local city workers' union.
He said he was satisfied with a request for time sheets signed by a worker the union made in July, but not with the lack of response to another request related to the city's animal shelter operations.
"I've got an open records request submitted in June, I think it was, that I still have not received. ... The staffing to get the records, they don't have it."
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