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City cites burdensome workload, abandoned requests for data initiatives

Routine requests regarding traffic tickets or residents' homes make up a bulk of the data inquiries the City of woodbury receives, city staff said.

But larger, more complex requests are the focus of two items on the city's legislative initiatives, which identifies the cities priorities as the Minnesota legislature moves into session.

City Council, at their Jan. 24 meeting, approved a list of initiatives that included proposals to allow fees for public data inspection.

Although critics of similar legislation worry the proposals could stifle access to public data, City Administrator Clint Gridley said the intent is to curb the burdens large requests can place on staff.

"In number, they're vastly smaller," Gridley said. "In impact, they're very big because it might cross several departments, different computer systems, different holding schedules of information."

Minnesota law allows government agencies to charge fees for providing public data only if they provide a physical or digital copy, but they may not charge for inspecting the data in person.

Michelle Okada, Public Information Officer with Woodbury Public Safety, said the amount of time she spends on a request is the same regardless of whether requesters review the data or pay for copies.

"We want to give them the information, but it costs time," Okada said. "Unfortunately, because these projects come and go, we can't budget for them. We don't know when the next big project and large request is going to come in."

Some larger requests, Gridley said, are submitted and never reviewed.

"That's painful," Gridley said. "That's taxpayer time, taxpayer resources, staff that doesn't get to do other things."

Okada said Public Safety staff have spent up to 16 hours assembling data the requester never reviewed.

The city, however, has not calculated the total staff hours or dollar amount dedicated to processing data requests, nor the number of larger data requests they receive each year.

Because the requests often span multiple departments and several years, Gridley said the amount of resources and number of requests are difficult to quantify.

Another item on the legislative initiative list would broaden the scope of information agencies may request about data inquiries.

Although agencies may ask someone to clarify their request, they may not inquire about the requestor's identity or the purpose of their inquiry.

By asking more questions about requests the city receives, Gridley said city staff could narrow the results and ease their workload.

"We're not going to try to talk someone out of (their request). But if they're thinking this wide," Gridley said, stretching out his arms, "and we say, 'Is this what you're looking for?' then that would make it more successful for everyone involved."