Records officers bear brunt of GRAMA requests
By Brooke Adams
The Salt Lake Tribune
When Yvonne Christensen went to work in the Davis County Clerk’s Office nearly 20 years ago, records requests were few and far between.
“We probably received two to three requests a year, mostly from the media,” said Christensen, who has served as the county’s records officer for the past 13 years.
No longer. In the vast majority of instances, the county provides records without needing a formal request. But in 2010, Davis County filled approximately 474 written requests — about 1 percent from the media — for such records as marriage license applications, personnel records, voting history and accident and animal bite reports.
Some requests, she said, are a cross between “either a spoiled child’s Christmas request or a ransom note” — that is, the requests that are at the heart of the debate over Utah’s Government Records Access and Management Act.
Christensen is among those with a keen interest in how lawmakers tinker with the state’s records law. For one thing, she’ll be charged with carrying out whatever changes they make. She is giving one idea being debated by the group a thumbs up: requiring standardized, annual training of records officers.
“It would really help if there was consistency [in both retention and response practices], and everyone wasn’t just out there winging it,” Christensen said.
Davis County has one of the most active programs for identifying, managing and providing access to records, said Patricia Smith-Mansfield, state archivist.
“They’ve always tried to be keep track of every bit of information in their record systems,” she said.
It is among the six counties in the state with a designated records officer; the others are Salt Lake, Utah, Uintah, Washington and Weber. In the past year, Christensen has updated the retention and classification schedule for every department’s records. Davis County also provides training to every department to ensure a consistent response to GRAMA requests.
All complex requests are sent to Christensen, who routinely runs them by the county attorney before providing a response.
“Most requests I receive now require hours of research, interpretations of law, and addressing each request within the request,” she said.
An example of such a request: “I am formally requesting the following, but not limited to: all documents, records, copies, facsimiles, photographs, reports, evaluations, correspondences, notes, electronic data, work products, property description, name of contracted appraiser with accompanying license number and etc., regarding the taxation and valuation of our property. Please provide me with a written certified statement listing each type of document provided to me and further certifying all documents have been provided.”
“One of my most time-consuming duties is writing a letter back,” she said. “Every word is carefully considered because it may end up at the State Records Committee or in court.”
In the case of a denial, none of Christensen’s time or that of other county staff is passed along to the record requester, since GRAMA allows fees to be charged only when a record is provided.
But what is the fair charge when hundreds of dollars in staff time are spent on a request that yields a couple of emails? Christensen asks.
In one instance, four county employees — Christensen, the assessor, county attorney and a county commissioner — spent a total of 30 hours reviewing and then providing 40 pages of documents to a requester, who paid less than $11.
“The few times when we actually have used GRAMA to charge for our time, the citizens were absolutely livid and just thought it was ridiculous,” Christensen said. “It’s almost impossible to justify.”
Other GRAMA requests that are time-intensive involve records that must be redacted because they contain a mix of public and private information, she said, and those that seek “information” rather than a specific record. Gathering the requested information sometimes involves numerous documents and databases, which, Christensen argues, results in creation of a new “record” that the county has to classify and retain.
“Now it’s become a job for me to figure out what to do with it,” she said.
Smith-Mansfield said other records officers had made the same argument.
“Sometimes it may be valid [to consider it a new report] and sometimes it may be covered in what they are already doing,” Smith-Mansfield said.
Christensen said the most burdensome requests she receives now come from businesses that “see government as information repositories, a great place to get mailing lists.”
In the past year, she’s received several records requests a week from “finders” who want names and addresses of individuals owed money from the county’s excess or unclaimed funds account. The finders then offer to recoup the money for a fee.
“I’m almost getting them daily at this point,” she said.
Christensen gets a lot of requests from attorneys or spouses of county employees who are involved in divorce and custody disputes and want information about pay, benefits, hours worked, etc. Property owners also sometimes try to use GRAMA as a discovery tool for tax appeals, shifting to the county the burden of defending its assessments, she said.
Christensen anticipates government entities eventually will need staff who do nothing else but respond to GRAMA requests, even though “it’s really only serving a tiny percentage of the public.”