The City Council, at its work session last week, heard yet another report on the public information request tracking (PIRT) system. With the city budget discussion starting next month, here is a place where the city could save some money.

The entire PIRT system was based on a system the city had in place to keep public records from the public, and if the city staff is to be believed they have tried since 2010 to transform it into a program to provide public records to the public.

A much better idea than trying to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse would be to get rid of the entire system and start over. The PIRT system doesn’t exactly violate state law, but it encourages people who request public records to ignore state law.

According to state law, “the custodian” of the records must allow the public to see those records at reasonable times and under reasonable supervision and must provide copies “as promptly as possible.”

According to the city policy, a person doesn’t make a public records request to the custodian of the records but to the PIRT administrator. Legally, the PIRT administrator, not being the custodian of the records, doesn’t have to provide anybody with any public records except their own.

At the work session, the city received a chart of how PIRT requests flow through the system. To the right is a somewhat reduced version of that chart. It has 13 boxes and arrows. There is absolutely no reason for something so simple to be made so complicated, unless the idea is to create more work so the city can hire more employees.

The entire PIRT system could be eliminated and replaced by sending one email to all those who are “custodians” of public records. The email should simply state that it is the policy of the City of Greensboro to obey the North Carolina public records law, and then state the pertinent passages of the law. It’s not a complicated law and it is all based on the fact that public records belong to the public, not to the government, and should be made available to the public with as little muss, fuss and delay as possible. There is nothing in the law that would indicate someone has to check off 13 boxes before releasing any public record.

One part of the law that the city seems to ignore is that it is not required to “create or compile a record that doesn’t exist.” It appears that much of the perceived problem is that requests are being made that require the city to do just that. Because the city refuses to recognize the law, it is spending hours and hours of staff time compiling records for people who make requests.

The city should stand by obeying the law by making all public records readily available and quit spending a lot of city employee time creating and compiling records that don’t otherwise exist.

Perhaps the reason the city doesn’t do this is because it still wants to keep tight control of public records, which by law belong to the people, not the city. There is a reason the law states the “custodian” of the records, not the owner of the records. The person requesting the records owns them, the custodian simply has them.

This is a case where the city has made a mountain out of molehill, and the taxpayers are paying to maintain that mountain.

The problem goes back to City Manager Mitch Johnson, who was fired by the City Council in March 2009. Under his reign, public records were not released until they had been vetted by an attorney. This held up simple public records requests for weeks or months needlessly, and violated both the spirit and the letter of the law.

Since then the city has kept modifying this system designed to keep the records out of the hands of the public for as long as possible in an attempt to turn it into a program that provides records. But why on earth have the system in the first place?

The way it should work is if anyone wants a public record from, for example, the Financial and Administrative Services Department, they should be able to call or email the finance department, request the record, and someone in the finance department should send them the public record. There is no need to track that record through 13 boxes and arrows. No need to notify the person that their request is being processed. No need for the city attorney’s office to approve the request and no need for the PIRT administrator to be involved at all.

The way it works now, in a best-case scenario, is that the request goes to the PIRT administrator who then makes the request to the finance department, receives the record from the finance department and forwards it to the requester. Where is the added value in having a PIRT administrator get in the middle of what should be a two step process? Request made, and public records sent.

I have ignored the PIRT system since its inception, and I’m always surprised when I get an email that says my PIRT request has been received because in most cases I haven’t made one. What I have done is requested the public records from the custodian of those records, and that person, being a responsible city employee, has entered my request into the PIRT system. I know then that the records are going to take a while to navigate through the system and get back to me.

City Councilmember Jamal Fox said at the work session that the city needed to consolidate and streamline city functions. Here is one that is begging to be streamlined, not to mention that it would put the city back in compliance with state law, which should matter to someone.

It’s worth noting that when this presentation about the new PIRT system, along with the chart with 13 boxes and arrows, was handed out to the City Council at the work session, no copies had been made for the press and public. For the department charged with dispensing public records to the public not to provide the public with the public documents about how the proposed system will work, was a telling gaffe and it makes me think that despite all the hubbub about being more open, the city hierarchy still likes the idea of holding on to public records for as long as possible and also knowing who has requested what. Fortunately, we did not have to make a PIRT request for those documents or I would probably still be waiting; the city manager’s office provided the chart and information before the meeting ended.

In fact, the staff’s recommendation that the city have the option of charging for public records requests that resulted in providing over 1,000 emails was evidence that the staff was not being entirely forthright about the reasoning behind the new policy.

So what the staff wanted to do was to have the choice of charging people it didn’t like and not charging those that it did.

City Councilmember Mike Barber, who is an attorney, said that policy sounded “arbitrary and capricious” to him and either the city should charge everybody with a request resulting in over 1,000 emails or nobody. Someone asked about documents and why the policy only applied to emails, which seems even more unfair.

According to the proposed staff policy, the staff got to decide who was charged, not based on any criteria. But perhaps even more egregious is if the staff policy had passed, someone could have requested 10,000 documents and not been charged a dime while someone else could request 1,001 emails and have been charged for them.

The City Council at least made the policy more reasonable. The policy accepted by consent of the City Council is to charge for all requests that involve more than 1,000 emails or documents, even a request from someone the city staff likes.

What it means is those making public records requests that might involve more than 1,000 emails or documents will have to figure out how to compartmentalize the request to get it under 1,000 or they will be charged. It shouldn’t be too hard, and in most cases can be done by reducing the time period over which the emails are requested. So instead of asking for all the emails on a certain topic for three months, someone might simply make three email requests each covering one month. Instead of making a request for all emails from the city manager to councilmembers, a person would request all the emails to each individual councilmember. It certainly appears that the result will be more work for the city not less.

But at least this portion of the policy is in compliance with state law, which does allow public bodies to charge a reasonable fee for compiling or creating a record if the public body chooses to do so.