As cities put records online, routine requests dwindle

BY JOSEPH FREEMAN,

Orlando Sentinel Writer

Donna Gardner started working for Casselberry in 1991. She became the clerk and records manager in 2008, about 40 years after the city incorporated. She has seen firsthand how fulfilling public records requests without the aid of the Internet has cost staff time and residents money.

In the years before Casselberry starting putting documents on the Web in 2003, employees searched file cabinets, pulled paper records and charged citizens 15 cents per sheet for copies.

“It has diminished the number of requests. It gives access to the public past when City Hall is open,” Gardner said.

That manual search is an increasingly outdated process for clerks in a number of Central Florida municipalities, whose usage of document-storage software has caused a decline in routine public records requests as residents eliminate the middleman and head straight to the Web for information on their city or town.

But the amount of records available online only scratches the surface of a municipality’s public-document trove. The law doesn’t mandate that local governments post public records online, raising questions about why certain documents make the cut and others don’t.

“It requires them to provide us with access to records. That’s the difference there,” said Barbara Petersen of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.

Most municipalities provide online access not to push open and transparent government but out of an attempt to provide more efficiency in handling day to day requests.

For cities with filing cabinets full of decades of records, the transition to online doesn’t happen overnight.

“It’s an evolutionary journey,” said Kimberly Samuelson, in charge of government marketing for Laserfiche, whose content-management software is used by more than 100 towns and cities in Florida, including a number in Central Florida such as Apopka, Kissimmee, Casselberry, Ocoee, Sanford and Deltona, among others.

Samuelson said residents have grown used to speed and efficiency in everything from shopping to email, so it’s only natural for government to respond in kind.

“Everybody gets spoiled by the private sector; they want that Amazon experience. I think municipalities know that; they are trying to move in that direction,” she said.

In Casselberry, it’s simply a matter of consumer demand.

“Basically, it’s up to me as a records management liaison officer to the state. Essentially what we put out there [online] is what we get requested the most from the public,” Gardner said.

The two words, “public records,” tend to evoke images of shadowy correspondence, investigations, financial invoices detailing the mismanagement of taxpayer funds. But it also means everyday, banal documents like ordinances, election notices, agenda packets, annual reports, budgets and monthly calendars.

In Winter Park, the city clerk responds to many requests by using a software program that can zero in on “topic specific” queries, like the minutes of a particular debate that took place in a City Commission meeting years ago. The documented minutes go back to the early 1960s.

Because cities want to provide access in a way that saves resources, creative alternatives to online records have turned up. On top of storing audio recordings and agendas online, Maitland officials set up a public computer at City Hall about five years ago. Residents can show up unannounced and peruse the e-mail inboxes City Council members.

Maitland City Clerk Maria Waldorp still retrieves for residents public documents that aren’t readily accessible online, but the volume of more-routine requests has dropped off.

“I think people are just getting used to the fact that everything is out there. That doesn’t mean that we still don’t get request for more details. Those are totally different. But with everything we have on our computer out there, I can’t tell you the last time I had somebody call me and say ‘Can I get a copy of the minutes?'”