Will Open-Records Gadfly’s 6,000 Requests Shed Sunlight on City Government, or Slam the Shutters?

If you’ve heard of Tim Clemans, you probably know him as a transparency watchdog, the guy who pointed out so many problems with the Seattle Police Department’s record-keeping and disclosure system that SPD eventually hired him to help them bring them out of the 20th century, only to cut him  loose when his efforts to streamline their antiquated systems pissed off some higher-ups at the hidebound and historically secretive department.

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Image via Tim Clemans’ Facebook page.

What you may not know is that he’s an increasingly prickly thorn in the side of not just SPD–of which he filed thousands of requests at the tail end of last year–but departments throughout the city as well dozens of smaller cities around the state. In a letter to Clemans in November, an exasperated city attorney Pete Holmes said fulfilling the disclosure crusader’s demands would be a “monumental, if not impossible task” that would be “futile and absurd” for the city to take on.

Clemans, a reclusive young programmer who lives with his mom and hasn’t had a job since he was let go by the city last October, came to prominence last year in a series of admiring reports by the Stranger, which praised his barrage of requests for dashcam videos as a high-minded crusade for transparency in government and at SPD, which is under a federal consent decree after allegations of racially biased policing and excess force, in particular.

When SPD hired Clemans,  national media echoed the Stranger’s praise for “the brilliant, award-winning, self-taught programmer,” calling Clemans a “hero hacker” (Gizmodo) undertaking a quixotic but “ambitious” effort to improve transparency in local government (Wired) only to be thwarted when an irritated police captain “felt [Clemans’ work] usurped his power” (Engadget).

And Clemans’ work was certainly ambitious–and promising. In his brief time at SPD, Clemans created a program that allowed citizens to view blurred-out images of police-car dashcam footage on Youtube; previously, SPD had had to watch videos frame by frame to redact personal information. (Clemans also planned to work on creating an auto-redaction program for police reports.) He resigned after clashing with department higher-ups over a program he created to triage 911 calls, which he says SPD wouldn’t allow to move forward despite the fact that prioritizing calls in order of urgency would save lives.

As Clemans described the situation to me in an interview in December, “on visit number two [to the 911 dispatch center], I just started solving problems,” chief among them how to prioritize calls and identify repeat callers. “I fundamentally believe that [SPD] is putting people’s lives in danger” by not adopting the software he created, Clemans says.

It didn’t take long for Clemans to get his revenge. Right before he left, Clemans says, he told his SPD bosses, “I’m going to PDR the shit out of you,” and he did, filing hundreds of requests for SPD dashcam footage and 911 call recordings almost as soon as he walked out the door.

His campaign made Clemans a hero to a certain type of government-wary technophile (male tech reporters, for whatever reason, seem particularly enamored of Clemans and his exploits). But what the glowing articles, replete with exclamation points punctuating Clemens’ achievements (the Stranger reported reported that Clemans posted the dash-cam “on his YouTube account, of course!” ) glossed over was that, according to multiple city officials, Clemans’ barrage of requests threatened to grind the gears of public disclosure to a halt.

This is due, in part, to the fact that the city’s public disclosure systems are not equipped to deal with massive requests for electronic data–one problem Clemans is trying to highlight. (At one point, as I reported in 2003 and again in 2010, many city offices did not even retain emails past 45 days, and the city’s retention and disclosure systems are still largely outdated and inconsistent from department to department.) From 2011 to 2015, according to a report submitted by the city attorney’s office to the city auditor, the total number of public records requests increased by 64 percent, while the number of requestors decreased 5.5 percent, meaning that a smaller number of people was asking for more information more frequently. “The serial requestors’ raw contribution over the past four years was nearly 5,400 requests, requiring 11,000 hours of public disclosure officer (PDO) time at a cost of at least $470,000 to fulfill,” the report concludes.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 10.23.16 PMAnd the requests Clemans filed, and continues to file, are truly massive–so vast and broad,  in fact, that many officials at the local and state levels believe they are impossible to fill, using current staffing and technology, within the span of a human lifetime. Those include  a request for “all records”–that is, every piece of documentation of any kind–the city of Seattle has ever produced.

In a letter dated December 7, 2015, city attorney Pete Holmes said he was denying Clemans’ request because the records he was seeking were not “identifiable,” which is another way of saying the request was too broad as well as “difficult, if not impossible” to fill.

“You have not defined your request by topic, timeframe, custodian, or any other identifier that would provide a meaningful description helpful for City staff charged with finding the record,” Holmes wrote. “Instead, you simply demand that the City sift through every one of the millions of records that may exist anywhere in City offices, storage sites, computer systems, City and personal telephones and personal devices, and any other potential records source in order to provide you anything that might conceivably constitute a public record along with its associated metadata. Accordingly, because your request is not a request for an ‘identifiable public record,’ the City is not obligated to respond.

“Setting aside all legal concerns, logistically, it would take the City hundreds of years to process your request and you could not inspect the responsive records in your lifetime.”

(Attorney General Bob Ferguson denied a similar request Clemans made for every email ever sent or received by state employees, which Ferguson estimated would include about 600 million emails, on similar grounds last February).

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 10.22.50 PMThe city can’t dismiss more specific requests so easily. According to Deputy City Attorney John Schochet, whose office ultimately determines which requests are valid,  Clemans had filed more than 300 public records requests at the city as of the end of December. Those alone, Schochet said, were “creating a huge amount of labor and impacting our ability to respond to other public records requests.” After we spoke, Clemans (with some help from computerized bots) filed thousands more requests with SPD,  announcing his intention in a tweet on December 21: “10K PDRs just started going out. Merry Christmas and have very happy TRANSPARENT new year.” Between October and late December 2015, SPD records show, Clemans filed 6,370 requests–5,972 of them on December 22.

According to a spreadsheet produced by Schochet, Clemans’ initial 300 requests included requests for 911 call records as well as all emails to, from, or about Clemans, “all thank you messages and praises for any employee,” “Photos of Kurt Cobain’s body,” and photos of all SPD employees. Explaining the former request, Clemans says, “It’s really disturbing to me that I can’t even really see who works for the city. These people are paid by the taxpayers, and I don’t even know what they look like.” As for the Cobain images (which he has not received), Clemans says that if photos showing the gunshots were public, “this whole conspiracy crap [the theory that Cobain was never shot] could be put to bed.”

Although Clemans says “I really do want the records,” he’s also trying to make a larger point about the need for greater (in his opinion, vastly greater) transparency and responsiveness from government agencies. Ultimately, Clemans argues, the city needs to move toward a direct-release system, in which all disclosable records would be public essentially as soon as they’re created. (Currently, the state Public Disclosure Act requires people to file requests for records and wait for a response.) Once the records were available, Clemans says, they could be organized and “auto-correlated,” so that “people [could] say, ‘I want to be notified whenever City Hall is talking about an issue that I care about.’ … [With] the documents alone, if they’re not turned into structured data, it’s really difficult to do anything,” Clemans says.

And, he adds, research (including a 12-month randomized trial in 2014) has shown that transparency–such as the presence of body cameras on police–changes behavior. “I firmly believe that people make vastly better decisions when the decisions they make and why they make them is on the Internet,” Clemans says.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 10.30.00 PMParadoxically, though, all these requests for public information may actually be putting a damper on disclosure. Because the requests Clemans makes are so broad and result in so much additional work for public disclosure officers, they’ve directly inhibited the city’s ability to respond to other requests. (In fact, I found out about Clemans’ latest batch of requests because a request I made, for an unrelated story, got delayed because, in one city disclosure officer’s words, the “City is being inundated with very large requests” that make it difficult to respond to routine requests from citizens, like “what’s going on with the sewer line in front of my house?” and journalists.)

Clemans says outdated technology and staffing shortfalls are no excuse for slow disclosure. “As far as I’m concerned, all these agencies have known for a long time that this could happen at any moment,” he says. “The effect of this is that agencies are going to think a lot harder” about what is and isn’t subject to public disclosure, he says. 

Clemans isn’t limiting his crusade to big cities with many public disclosure officers and large legal departments like Seattle; he made similar requests to all 39 cities in King County, including tiny municipalities like Algona, population 5,513, that don’t employ even one public disclosure officer. Last month, dozens of cities across the state participated in a conference call, convened by the Association of Washington Cities, to discuss how to handle the barrage of requests.

“At my office, we have three staffers to perform all the functions of the city clerk’s office,” says Redmond City Clerk Michele Hart. “We don’t have a records division to speak of. … I don’t personally see that the (public records) law accounted for the fact that we have email today and that someone can come in and make one request that has 7,000 emails in it. Each of those records has to be reviewed by a person to make sure there’s nothing that’s being released” that shouldn’t be, she continues. “It’s a very complicated level of work that requires a lot of attention.”

Kirkland City Clerk Kathi Anderson, who has also been inundated with requests from Clemans, says that as an open-government advocate, she wants to provide records as quickly as possible. But, she adds, some of Clemans’ broader requests could take a decade or more to fulfill unless the city hires (and funds) more staff to deal with them.  “If we have a complex request, it just means that we’re going to take a long, long time,” Anderson says. “If the council decided that it’s going to take us decades and they believe it should only take us five years, they would have to allot more of the budget to provide the staffing to do that.”

Clemans dismisses concerns that the state will respond to requests from him and other “serial requesters” by tightening public-disclosure law. “That’s going to be a tough sell. They tried to do that last year with the body cams”–proposed legislation would have made it more difficult for record-seekers, including journalists, to access bodycam video footage–and it didn’t go anywhere. The agencies would have to show that they really came close to bankruptcy” before the legislature would take on such a losing political battle again, Clemans predicts.

In the meantime, by its own estimates, the city has hundreds of hours, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in staff time, to spend responding just to the requests Clemans has already filed.

13 thoughts on “Will Open-Records Gadfly’s 6,000 Requests Shed Sunlight on City Government, or Slam the Shutters?

  1. Why doesn’t Tim put all the public records he collects online, and charge a subscription service fee or something like that for people to read whatever they want? Would that be illegal?

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  2. Pingback: Open Thread Jan. 8 | HorsesAss.Org

  3. The larger problem here is the insane number of exemptions to the public records law, which drives this exhaustive review, which in turn enables obstructionism by agencies. The notion that one citizen’s interest in public records is more virtuous or valuable than another’s is contrary to both the letter an the spirit of the law.

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  4. Here in Camden County, Missouri where I have been waging the 610 Battle for two years they are effectively trying to stop me through fees for redacting rather than the allowable, legal research or copies … I am getting ready to sue and see how it goes … Keep up the good work!!!

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  5. When the public disclosure law was first approved by voters in 1972, the assumption was that public disclosure requests would be made by citizens who actually had an interest in the substance, the detail of what was disclosed. This guy has demonstrated no such interests. For him it’s volume for the sake of volume, apparently to fulfill his need for attention, no matter the cost or inconvenience to taxpayers — and folks like you, Erica, who do have an actual interest in what you’re asking to be disclosed.

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  6. What needs to change is simply passing on the costs of fulfilling these requests — above some reasonable threshold — to requestors. That should shrink the number of over-sized, fishing expedition, PDR requests quite well.

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    • The SPD and any other public agency already charges on a per request basis. And depending what the requester is asking for, the agency provides an estimate of what it will cost to fulfill. Hence the 475k bill which Clemens would have to pay on order for the request to be filled.

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  7. Regarding the software I made for 911: “He resigned after clashing with department higher-ups over a program he created to triage 911 calls, which he says SPD wouldn’t allow to move forward despite the fact that prioritizing calls in order of urgency would save lives.” What I made did not prioritize 911 calls which has been done for decades. I made software that keeps the Chief Dispatcher at their desk (number of things are in paper behind the CD position) and allows them to have highlighted any message from any dispatch event with keywords the dispatcher cares about. For the 911 call takers my software immediately showed one’s history shortening the time it takes to figure out how a repeat caller’s CAD event is meaning real emergency calls will get answered quicker. The meeting I blew up in was meant to move things forward but the 911 center captain wanted no part of it.

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  8. I may be part of his fanboy base (while, male, middle-class techie) but I think it is ridiculous that our governments are not rquipped to deal with this type of requests and uphold their obligations under the law. I think his suggestion of jsut making things available in a searchable directory is the correct way of moving forward.

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