Public records in real time: Commissioner says state is doing well to fulfill requests

Posted: Monday, December 01, 2008

Alaska has a long and proud tradition of open government and citizen access to the state's public records. "Unless specifically provided otherwise, the public records of all public agencies are open to inspection by the public under reasonable rules during regular office hours." Since this law was first enacted in 1962 every governor and administration has fulfilled its requirements, usually without any publicity or hint of controversy.

The nomination of Gov. Sarah Palin as a candidate for the vice-presidency had an unintended consequence: It exposed some of the problems of the "electronic services and products" portion of the public records disclosure law (AS 40.25.115) which was last updated by the Legislature in 1992. There is no indication that the Legislature contemplated a situation where scores of news organizations, bloggers and activist groups, Alaskan and Outside, would request e-mail records of hundreds or thousands of state employees -- all at the same time and many demanding instant responses in a time of 24-hour news or blog updates.

From Aug. 29 through Nov. 4 the governor's office received almost 100 public records requests, mainly for e-mail, that when searched for, organized, printed and checked by the Department of Law for confidential information, will have taken at least 3,300 hours of state employee time to fulfill -- just from two of the state's departments.

People from all across Alaska write to their governor with their personal concerns. Many times they write to their state senator or representative with these same concerns. The Alaska Legislative Council has enacted a Records Policy that explicitly states that a legislator's communications with his or her constituents are the property of the legislative office and not public records. Unlike the executive branch, the legislature is not subject to the unexpected costs and productivity disruptions caused by requests for large amounts of e-mail.

Just as with e-mail to their legislator, Alaskans write to the governor with the expectation that their personal issue will not be splashed across someone's blog or a newspaper. The governor has frank e-mail interaction with her Cabinet members -- publicizing these policy discussions could weaken the state's future negotiating and financial positions. The Department of Law reviews the requested e-mails with this in mind.

The Department of Law alone spent over 2,600 employee hours from September through early November either responding to public records requests or on litigation connected with public records requests. Computer professionals from the Department of Administration's Division of Enterprise Technology Services logged 690 hours, mainly on e-mail searches. Other agencies and departments also had large increases in the volume of public records requests, including state contracting, financial transactions and personnel and employment records.

State law also directs that "The activities authorized under this section may not take priority over the primary responsibilities of a public agency," and authorizes the recovery of "actual incremental costs." Before August of this year these considerations had rarely been a factor in fulfilling requests for electronic records. Some of the early requestors for "all e-mails" from long lists of state employees, over a period of many months or years and including extensive lists of search terms, were quoted estimated costs up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Thanks to the work of our dedicated state information technology professionals, ways were found to avoid major duplication of effort and decrease these costs considerably.

Contrary to the impression you may have gotten from some media sources, each and every request for public records not withdrawn by the requestor has been or is currently being fulfilled. In addition, Department of Law vetting for confidentiality of public records requests made to the governor's office is a long-standing practice, not something that began when Alaska came under the media spotlight.

The power of government is inherent in the people and they have a right to ask questions of their government. We have learned a great deal from the challenges of the last few months. We remain committed to transparent, open government and the right of the people to access Alaska's public records.

Annette Kreitzer is the commissioner of the Department of Administration.

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