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Sonoma County will spend up to $500,000 on a public records consultant

Vaseline 2 months ago

When a citizen submits a public information request to Sonoma County government, it goes through an opaque network of county employees and departments, all of which have different ways of handling those requests.

The cumbersome and varied methods can be challenging for the public when it comes to figuring out where and how to submit requests. And county officials say it’s also a challenge for employees trying to fulfill these requests, sometimes leading to duplication of effort.

In an effort to find a better way to handle public records requests, the county will spend up to $500,000 on a consultant to evaluate and help revise the methods.

The goal is to develop a centralized system, said Dan Fruchey, director of the Sonoma County Information Systems Department.

“Analysis is the first step,” Fruchey said. “We will have standardized systems that work for all departments.”

To start, the county’s information systems department allocated $213,050 to Deloitte, the consultant. The contract cannot exceed $500,000, and the department will turn to the County Administrator’s Office for assistance in obtaining funds for any additional work if the cost exceeds $213,050, according to a staff report.

The Supervisory Board approved the contract on Tuesday.

The California Public Records Act (PRA) requires local governments to disclose and preserve records created in the course of government activities, with exceptions for certain records, such as records created during closed sessions and records subject to attorney privilege and client.

The state does not specify how governments should process public records requests.

An increase in the volume and complexity of such requests has led the county to look for a better process, said Fruchey and Supervisor David Rabbitt, board chairman.

“It’s so bad that it’s a headache for every department,” Rabbitt said. “It takes a lot of time from every department and we owe it to them to see if there is a better way to manage the requests and fulfill them in a more efficient way.”

The county does not have data indicating an increase in the number of requests or the demand those requests place on county employees. But data collected by the county shows that employees logged 2,499 hours while responding to public records requests from 2022 to 2023. Those hours cost an estimated $125,000, according to a county staff report.

David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said he is skeptical of claims that public records requests are increasing and placing too many demands on public agencies.

“Yes, responding to public records requests is a burden, there’s no question about that,” Snyder said. “But it is a burden that the law requires of agencies.”

He added that agency complaints that these types of requests are increasing have “probably been around in one form or another as long as the Public Records Act.”

Creating a centralized system to respond to requests does not guarantee better or effective transparency, Snyder said.

“If the effect of what they’re talking about is that they spend less time on all these requests, regardless of whether they’re doing the right thing under the law, then I think that’s a problem,” Snyder said. “If, on the other hand, they’re trying to become more efficient and say, ‘is there a way we can speed up the process internally and as a result give people better answers? and better results?’ Then that would be great.”

Fruchey said the goal of the review is to become more efficient.

“I think we’re just trying to figure out how to address this in a broader way so we can respond better,” he said.

Deloitte is expected to take about 20 weeks to interview department representatives and document how departments respond to public records requests. Any findings and recommendations are then compiled into a report and submitted to the district council.

You can reach staff writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or [email protected]. On Twitter @MurphReports.