Public records requests are going up in San Leandro, and so are costs

San Leandro City Clerk Leticia Miguel said a rising number of public records requests are taxing her office. Following passage of AB 1421, which opened up access to video footage and records related to police officer-involved shootings and police misconduct, the number of request in San Leandro has nearly double over the past two years, she told the San Leandro City Council this week.

Records requests have jumped from 135 in 2017 to 251 through the end of November this year, an 85 percent increase, Miguel said. Roughly half of all request pertain to the Community Development Department and the Police Department.

While the increase in requests from the police department can be explained by AB 1421, the rise in Community development requests may be due to a gambit for some real estate speculators to avoid paying the city’s fees for zoning compliance letters. Instead, they make the requests for the information through the public records process, which in most cases, has no cost.

Nevertheless, the number of public records request is siphoning a growing number of hours from city employees. One full-time employee in the city clerk’s office spends about three-fourths of their workday on public records requests, Miguel said. A police manager, whose primary job is to oversee the department’s dispatchers, instead spends most of the day processing public records requests. “It’s not sustainable,” San Leandro Police Chief Jeff Tudor said.

The city has no way of tracking how taxing the public records requests are on staff. In most cases, the costs of recovering records cannot be recovered because of state law.

When asked for a ballpark estimate to assess the cost of processing public records request this year, San Leandro City Manager Jeff Kay said, they are considerable once extrapolated over numerous city departments. “I would be taking the over on a half a million dollars, if I had to guess,” Kay said.

AB 1421 is viewed by many police accountability activists as a groundbreaking piece of legislation. It was authored last year by East Bay state Sen. Nancy Skinner and became law last Jan. 1. However, the laws allots no additional funding for cities to absorb the new costs of redacting police body-cameras, which can be labor-intensive. Generally, one minute of body-camera footage takes an average of 10 minutes to redact, Tudor said.

However, there was no ask by the city clerk or police chief to the city council for additional funding for staffing. Although, the possible purchase of new software to lighten the load of public records requests was broached Monday night.

The increase in public records requests and additional costs of providing them to the public is not unique to San Leandro. Neighboring Hayward, for example, typically receives about double the amount of records requests that San Leandro handled this year. In larger and far more politically-active communities, such as Oakland and Berkeley, the number of requests and costs is assuredly even higher.