COVID-19 has generally closed Livermore City Hall to the public, but most of the city’s records remain available for public inspection, at least in electronic form.
Last month, the city rolled out a new portal on its website where those seeking city records, including police records, can request and retrieve them online.
The portal is part of a records management system the city selected through an Illinois-based software company GovQA.
“(Livermore is) working toward a digital transition,” said City Clerk Marie Weber. “This is a step in that direction.”
The system is cloud-based and allows many requests to be processed by city employees working remotely from home during the shelter-in-place.
For the public, the new portal is designed to simplify the process of requesting records. It allows requesters to set up an account and track the progress of requests in real time without the need to call or write.
Another feature that can save time for both requesters and city staff is something the software vendor calls “deflection technology,” which can divert requests for records the city does not maintain or open records it already published online. For example, if a person typed “Livermore Area Recreation and Park District,” the program could alert them that the district is not part of the city and would provide contact information for obtaining parks records. Similarly, if keywords in a request match public records already published in the city’s open data portal, the program can provide links to relevant files.
Requests can be made through a personal account set up on the portal or anonymously. While cities can create public records request forms or set up online portals, they cannot dictate the way requests are made. Under the California Public Records Act, requests can be made orally or in writing.
For city staffers in charge of retrieving records, the system includes tools that can reduce administrative tasks, allowing different departments to work collaboratively without resorting to email, Weber said.
If a person requests a record that contains both disclosable and exempt information, the city is required to provide the record in redacted form if the nonexempt information is “reasonably segregable” from that which is exempt.
The new program has an audit log that keeps tabs on redactions and a menu where the person processing the record can select the legal basis for withholding the information. The workflow can be somewhat automated from the start. Once a task is completed, departments can forward documents to one another or back to the person requesting the information, Weber said.
In recent years, the city clerk’s office processed between 300 to 350 public records requests per year. Weber reported the police department processes about that much each month.
The city clerk’s office and the police department obtained a license in a bundled contract to use the program for a year. The city’s share of the cost is between $8,000 to $10,000, Weber said.
The change from a manual process for handling public records requests to an electronic system underscores a larger effort within Livermore city government to update its information technology infrastructure and to migrate more of its key systems to the cloud, which are less vulnerable to cyber attacks.
The effort was hastened after cyber criminals seized control of some of the city’s computer systems in a disruptive ransomware attack last fall. Livermore never paid the ransom, and no sensitive data was leaked, according to city officials, but the attack knocked phones, email and police dispatching systems out of commission for days before they could be restored.
A National Freedom of Information Coalition report in 2019 found early evidence that if deployed and administered based on the features and functionality, online public record requests portals can save time and money and increase efficiency, accountability and responsiveness to records requests.