Independent review finds solid process in place for Public Records Requests; recommends improvements in providing documents
In May, TriMet hired the law firm of Stoll Berne to review how the agency handles Public Records Requests (PRR) and how it produces documents for legal cases. The independent review was initiated after separate media reports charged that TriMet was not forthcoming with public records and that TriMet hid documents in a federal court case. TriMet wanted an independent review to set the record straight.
“We stand by our dedication to transparency and we release all records and documents appropriately,” said TriMet General Counsel Jana Toran. “We approach all records requests with the assumption that the records are public and releasable, unless there is an exemption or conditional exemption that applies.”
Public Records Process
The outside review looked at 24 PRR requests and found that TriMet had improved its process of handling Public Records Requests over the past two years by dedicating a member of the legal department to process the requests, formalizing the process and putting all requests and their status online. As the number and complexity of PRR continues to expand, with up to two requests per day, TriMet recognized the need to dedicate more resources to the program and began implementing many of the changes that Stoll Berne ultimately recommended.
“TriMet works diligently to process all requests in a timely fashion,” said Stoll Berne Managing Shareholder Scott Shorr. “The agency approaches records requests with good faith: They are open and share records. We saw no attempt to hide records, or delay or deny requests. Given the sheer volume and complexity of requests, as well as not having a centralized system for storing, organizing and searching electronically, there are certain inefficiencies in handling requests.”
With the agency on track to receive more than 600 PRR this year, the independent review recommends TriMet will greatly benefit from investing in electronic tools to locate, search and produce documents. “What will improve our efforts going forward is implementing software programs that support electronic discovery tools,” said Toran. “The cost can be extreme so we first need to look at how we can leverage what we already have and then we can add supplemental software where additional resources are needed.”
Documents for legal cases
TriMet was concerned that the inaccurate media claims would raise concerns with the courts and opposing counsel regarding confidence in the documents that were produced. Stoll Berne independently selected and reviewed three closed county and federal cases, and found that the department was making reasonable efforts to locate and retrieve relevant documents. They went on to note that TriMet should develop a formalized “legal hold” and a search process so that both the parties to a lawsuit and the court could be confident that all reasonable efforts were made to locate documents. The independent reviewers did find areas that needed improvement:
- Training of executive directors and records personnel (completed and will be done annually going forward)
- Hire a consultant to guide records management system
- Catalogue all documents and make them electronically searchable and compliant with Oregon Records Retention Requirements
- Purge unnecessary documents
- Invest in e-discovery/software enhancements
The review recommends that TriMet hire additional staff to assist in retrieval of records for PRR and for litigation, and improve process for litigation holds, plus conduct additional staff training. Any new hires have to come from other open positions throughout the agency.
Stoll Berne also recommended that TriMet catalogue all documents as a first step to improve its electronic search capabilities. TriMet has already issued a Request for Proposal for an outside firm to assist in this effort. We expect this work to be completed by the end of the year.
TriMet will expand its Legal Hold process to include any and all incidents that occur on the transit system, whether or not they become legal claims or lawsuits. This enhancement will be in place by September 1.
We estimate that investing in electronic discovery and other tools to improve document management and records retrieval could cost between $3 million to $5 million. The agency has to balance this cost against its core business of expanding service.