What is the best way for your city or town to reduce open government compliance costs?

2009 March 24
by Attorney Mark Dumas

The good folks over at the Open-Government Blog recently raised a very good point about how municipalities can reduce the costs associated with Freedom of Information requests.

So what’s the key factor to reducing the costs of FOI requests?  A government’s openness and transparency.  If citizens don’t trust their government, they file more FOI requests.

Bainbridge Island, Washington provides a compelling example of this point in action.  Here’s what a recent article from the Kitsup Sun has to say about records requests in Bainbridge Island.

Island residents’ growing desire to peer at the inner workings of their city government is slowing the municipal machine.

In search of financial documents, e-mail correspondence, development permits and sometimes archival materials spanning decades, residents made more than 630 public records requests to the city last year.

The number and scope of requests are becoming a workload and financial burden disproportionate to the city’s size and shrinking budget, city managers say.

“We’re at five times the number of requests of comparable cities,” City Attorney Paul McMurray said. “It’s a huge number of requests for a city of 22,000.”

And the politicians and citizens of Bainbridge Island know what has caused the recent spike in FOI requests: mistrust of local government.

The reason for the flood of requests is clear, Mayor Darlene Kordonowy said.

“We have lost trust from the community,” she said.

While islanders have built a reputation for strong involvement in local government, they’ve also earned a bit of infamy for an equally robust distrust for it.

Controversial land-use or public-financing decisions often spur requests for information. If requests hit roadblocks or delays along the way, distrust only grows.

“My feeling is that the city created this by not being more forthcoming,” said Rod Stevens, who has filed about a dozen records requests with the city. “We don’t have transparent government. People raise a lot of questions, but neither the mayor or the administration respond to them.”

The result for city is more administrative work with higher costs while at the same time staff is being reduced due to the recession. The clear lesson that we can learn from Bainbridge Island is that the best way to keep freedom of information compliance costs down is to have an open government that people trust.

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