Editor’s Take: Paramount should consider an online portal to request public records

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Charles M. Kelly is the editor of the Paramount Journal.

When I graduated journalism school (cough, cough) years ago, it wasn’t unusual for one weekly newspaper to have three editors. Nowadays, it’s not unusual for one editor to have three newspapers.

 

The positive side of that is that covering three cities allows me to compare and contrast what different city governments are doing.

 

Seal Beach, for example, has an online portal that allows residents (and out-of-towners) to apply for documents under the California Public Records Act.

 

It’s convenient. It doesn’t cost the requesters a dime. I get email notices when the city needs more time to review my request. I get email notices when my documents are released.

 

At least theoretically, a released document can be downloaded from the public records portal by anyone, not just the applicant. That means the document need only be created once, as a PDF, to meet public record requests. It’s simply faster and better than having people apply in person for public records, then come back to pick them up in person, and have staff members make more than one copy of the same document for multiple requesters. Even if the city charged a copying fee—Seal Beach used to charge 25 cents a page. (I photocopied documents at the public library for 15 cents a page.)

 

Paramount should create its own online Public Records Request Portal. It would probably increase the number of record requests being submitted to the city—at least in the beginning.  Since July 2017, Seal Beach has released 194 documents, at a calculated cost of $32,315.47 in staff time during that period.

 

Seal Beach doesn’t charge for public records. I don’t think governments ought to charge the public for the release of information that belongs to the goverment. Of course I’m biased. I want access to as much information as I can get as quickly as practical and as inexpensively as possible. Many years ago, I asked the Orange County Sheriff’s Department for response times in unincorporated areas and was told I could have the information for $50 an hour. Um, no, not even if I had it. Most government information—especially about public safety—belongs to everyone, not just those folks with the deepest pockets.

 

A records request portal would increase transparency and efficiency. Paramount should try it.

 

Email your opinions to ckelly@localnewspapers.org. If you disagree with the editor, that’s even better.

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