In March, the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists released the results of a survey on the city’s NextRequest system. Last week, San Diego SPJ president Lisa Halverstadt and advocacy chair Tom Jones met the city’s public records staff as well as communication chiefs for the city and Mayor Kevin Faulconer to discuss how the city responds to records requests.
To see a visualization of our NextRequest survey findings, click here. The group went over survey results and steps journalists and the city might take to address common concerns.
Here’s some of what was discussed:
- Many survey participants noted that NextRequest does not allow requesters to communicate directly with city staff with expertise on certain records. This often makes it more difficult to formulate requests. City Communications Director Katie Keach said journalists can contact a department’s media liaison prior to filing their request and the liaison will put them in touch with a staffer who can help. For a list of the city’s media liaisons, click here.
- Multiple survey participants reported a lack of clarity about how to challenge or appeal a public records request that’s been denied or only partly fulfilled. The city’s PRA team said a closed request shouldn’t be seen as a closed door. They recommended that requesters message staff directly in the NextRequest portal if they believe a request hasn’t been properly fulfilled.
- City staff recommended that journalists narrow their requests whenever possible because overly broad requests can result in longer response times. Program Manager Jacqueline Palmer said the city is legally required to assist journalists in forming requests.
- Palmer said records in their “native format,” including data sets, can be provided if the requester specifies this in their request — and if a department has the information available in the requested format. Keach said data records should always include a key or record layout so the requester can make sense of codes or terminology. Keach asked requesters to contact the city’s PRA team if responses do not include this.
- We asked whether the city could cite specific legal exemptions when sections of records are blacked out. Staff said they will look into whether exemptions can be cited on the records themselves (i.e., near each redaction), instead of in a separate list.
- Some survey participants had asked whether the city could update NextRequest to make it easier for users to locate their requests. Keach said staff would look into adding a feature to filter requests, or a separate tab within the NextRequest portal where users can see the requests they have submitted.
We also asked about the step-by step process after a request is submitted.
- When a request is submitted, staff receive an alert. If they have questions, they contact the requester. If there are no questions, liaisons assigned to handle requests for each department take over. If they lack the subject-matter expertise to respond to the request, they will seek out appropriate staff. This part of the process usually begins within two days.
- Per state law, staff responds to the requester within 10 days, indicating if the records exist and, if so, approximately how long it will take to fulfill the request. (Halverstadt asked about the message requesters often receive, saying the records will be released in approximately two weeks. One suggestion was to tell the requester when it appears their request will take longer than two weeks to fulfill to better manage expectations.)
- Within two weeks, staff indicate whether they need more time to fulfill the request or if the request needs to be directed to another agency.
- Once department liaisons have the records, they search through them for redactions or exemptions that may be necessary for legal reasons. Once redactions are made, the records are returned to the PRA office for review to see if any additional redactions are necessary and if the records are indeed what the requester sought.
- Records are released through the NextRequest portal or, if they are released to the requester directly, they are published on NextRequest. After 72 hours, the records are published in the public section of NextRequest.
San Diego SPJ thanks city staff for their willingness to discuss the city’s records request process and concerns raised by SPJ’s survey. We recognize the city is not required to have a system like NextRequest and appreciate how it’s made requesting records more efficient and enhanced transparency.
We welcome additional feedback or questions and will continue to communicate with local government agencies about public records processes. For questions or feedback, email SD-SPJ at firstname.lastname@example.org.