Heights adjusts city’s public hours

By Daniel Hernandez
La Habra Journal

Attempting to stabilize the backlog of public record requests, La Habra Heights officials at the Seal_La Habra HeightsNovember council meeting implemented a new approach to controlling the demand for such documents.
Council members agreed to change city office hours in order to create enough time for staff to do city work and to further place certain public records online.
“We don’t have the capacity,” City Manager Shauna Clark explained at the meeting about her staff attempting to utilize a new computer program while catering to the public.
The city has spent money on an electronic system, Laserfiche, which stores records and makes them available on the Internet.
As of now the program remains unimplemented because of what the city manager deems a lack of working hours and manpower to implement the new program.
“We came forward with this with the best of intentions, to satisfy the needs of the community … for records that they needed to access,” Councilman Michael Higgins said about the Laserfiche program. “We have obligated and spent money on this and have been stymied for the last three months by all these records requests.”
The city hired an additional deputy city clerk to index and upload the records, Clark explained. But she has spent 90 percent of her time responding to a recent increase in public record requests.
Laserfiche, a private document managing and imaging company, explains on its website that it can manage documents with its company because of the public’s ongoing demand for government transparency and access.
Heights officials have struggled to meet the demand of a large amount of record requests that come in daily, and the city council members answered the staff’s plea for help by allowing them to adjust the hours available to the public.
“The level of records demands in La Habra Heights far exceeds levels experienced by other cities,” Clark said about discussions staff has had with officials from other communities.
Although officials left the opening and closing times up to the city manager to decide, at the meeting an agreement was made to keep the office available for public record requests for a minimum of five hours a day.
Critics of the implementation at the council meeting contend that certain California law does not allow for the city to set particular hours for requesting public documents.
But the California Public Requests Act states: “Records may be inspected at an agency during its regular office hours.”
Heights officials seem to be setting the office hours for the records inspections in this case.
The Public Records Act essentially permits the public the right to scrutinize and analyze requested city documents and allows public officials a period of 10 days to respond to such requests. However, certain exemptions are allowed under the law.
“If immediate disclosure is not possible, the agency must provide the records within a reasonable period of time, along with an estimate of the date that the records will be available,” the law states.
If no record can be produced, Clark explained at the council meeting, city staff is bound by state law to explain the absence of a record and assist in finding a record that may satisfy the request.
Clark sent a memo to her staff earlier this month cautioning them not to hand immediate available documents to the public if a backlog exists, careful not to demonstrate preferential treatment, no matter the case.
Clark explained the city received more than 2,000 public record requests in the last five years.
She explained that the staff was fairly current with responding to requests until mid September when 91 requests were made. The previous monthly average was 60 per month, Clark said.
Clark also explained that other factors that contribute to the current backlog is the ongoing appeal process in the city hall renovation process which has caused a strain on staff resources.

Started in 1995, the La Habra Journal is an independent community news source serving the cities of La Habra and La Habra Heights.