Late last year, I published a commentary on the questionable policy implementation by the Scott County Board of Supervisors, at the request of staff, to indiscriminately destroy e-mails more than three years old, beginning January 2, 2014 (RCReader.com/y/email1).This new policy was implemented in the wake of Assistant County Administrator Mary Thee issuing a memo to county employees about the increase of public inquiries and litigation requesting e-mail messages.
In the spirit of practicing what I was preaching, namely getting one's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in before the January 2 date (despite the county administrator extolling that her staff has been practicing said deleting for some time), I submitted a FOIA request about a topic this paper has covered more extensively than any local news outlet: the Scott County Emergency Communications Center, a.k.a. SECC911. (See RCReader.com/y/foia1 and RCReader.com/y/foia2.)
Keep in mind that the SECC911 project is important because it was sold to the taxpayers as a cost-saver, only to have its costs more than quadruple the original estimates, ballooning to more than $20 million. And the entity that was created under a 28E, or "emergency services" statute, is made up of un-elected appointees, who possess unlimited, or un-capped, taxing authority. I am still amazed at how few people are familiar, let alone concerned, with this black hole that flies completely under the radar. And, lest we forget, years later we still don't have a consolidated 911 dispatch service.
This request was e-mailed to the Scott County Board of Supervisors as well as Administrator Dee Bruemmer. Below is the text of that request, and the response from Assistant County Attorney Robert Cusack. For those paying close attention, yes, Cusack is the son of William Cusack, one of the supervisors this FOIA request was directed to.
The response may reveal different insights to different readers, depending on one's perspective. For instance, the response states that "E-mails older than three years are held on magnetic tape." Which begs the question: Which e-mails older than three years? Ones that were kept because they are important? And by whom and when was that decision made, in lieu of the new policy implemented on January 2? And purportedly a search of a single county-staffer e-mail account for 22 search terms will take nearly four hours per account. Granted, this search can readily be reduced by narrowing the request down to certain individuals. And, in hindsight, that is probably what will be more effective.
Note, too, that part of the process your county government is taking on your behalf is to redact any information that is deemed confidential. The statute cited is pretty clear in its 3,777-word, 64-point enumeration of what you, the taxpayer, are not allowed to see. So one can understand how that would eat up a lot of valuable time in order to prepare any response to a FOIA request, no matter how large or small. We share this correspondence in its unedited form as part commentary and part public service.
Clearly, in order to obtain through the Freedom of Information Act any information that can help explain how the SECC911 project became so unwieldy, costly, and ineffective, the request needs to be honed considerably. Anyone with information that could assist in that refining of a FOIA request is encouraged to reach out to the Reader. We will maintain your confidentiality and anonymity.
Scott County Freedom of Information Act Request Addendum
Time Period: January 1, 2004, through December 30, 2013.
Description of Records Requested:
E-mail communications, with attachments, and/or written, typewritten, printed communications in possession physically or digitally, including e-mails and attachments that exist within "trash bin" or deleted e-mail folders that are responsive to one or more of the following criteria:
Subject lines for e-mails or memo topics that include the terms:
Scott County Emergency Communications Center
23E [Editor's note: This was a typographical error; it should have read "28E."]
Bi-State Regional Commission
Communications that do not have a subject line or memo topic named above, but contain within the body of the communication subject matter that is associated with the topics, keywords, named above.
Communications and their attachments that are related to the consolidated dispatch project, inter-governmental agreement, SECC, Scott County Emergency Communications Center, radios, radio study, RFP, grants, RACOM, CTA, EMS, New World Systems, Scott County EMA, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and/or Bi-State Regional Commission.
Re: FOIA request submitted 12/31/13
Dear Mr. McGreevy,
I am responding to your request for information made pursuant to Iowa Code Chapter 22 (Open Records). Specifically, I have been asked to address your request for e-mails within the Scott County system. Your request includes the time period from January 1, 2004, through December 31, 2013. There appears to be 22 unique search terms in the request. The request does not name any individual e-mail accounts and is interpreted to include all of the e-mails in the county system.
Your request was forwarded to our Information Technology Department to estimate the expense of the examination of records under the parameters you set forth. As you are aware, Scott County's e-mail server holds e-mails going back three years. E-mails older than three years are held on magnetic tape. Each system needs to be searched separately, and each requires different search methods. At the time of the estimate, 519 Scott County employees have e-mail accounts in the system.
A summary of the estimates for each search is as follows:
Estimate for searching active e-mail:
It is necessary to load each employee's mailbox in Outlook, run 22 searches for the specified terms, and pull the results into a PST file. For each mailbox:
Create Outlook profile, mount destination PST file 5 minutes
Run each search (10 minutes) X 22 keywords 220 minutes
Close PST file, delete Outlook Profile 5 Minutes
Total 230 minutes per mailbox
At 519 mailboxes in-scope, it will take about 119,370 minutes to gather the data to satisfy this FOIA request (230 minutes x 519 mailboxes = 119,370 minutes). That comes to roughly 1,989 hours and 30 minutes (119,370 minutes / 60 minutes per hour = 1989.50 hours).
1989.5 hours at approximately $27 per hour: $53,716.50
Estimate for searching e-mail backups.
22 search terms
3 e-mail stores
22 x 3 x 14 = 924 e-mail backup queries.
Each query will take on average 30 minutes depending on the store and the size of data to search and restore matches. Estimation is on a query made to the smallest and the largest dataset.
30 x 924 = 41,580 minutes or 462 hours.
462 hours at approximately $33.00 per hour: $15,246.00
Total to retrieve raw information $68,962.00
After the information is retrieved in raw form, it must then be reviewed to determine whether it is confidential as defined in Iowa Code Section 22.7 (RCReader.com/y/foia3). This process will require an individual to review each e-mail to determine if it contains confidential information. At this point in time, because it is unknown how many e-mails will be retrieved in the searches, it is difficult to determine how much the review will cost. Given the search terms requested, a conservative estimate of e-mails retrieved will be in the thousands. It is entirely possible the review will cost as much as the information retrieval. In addition, because the request for records is so extensive, it is unreasonable to expect that it can be fulfilled in less than one year.
Iowa Code Section 22.3(2) (RCReader.com/y/foia4) provides that the costs of the examination shall be paid by the person desiring to copy. Section 22.3(1) provides that "[f]ulfillment of a request for a copy of a public record may be contingent upon receipt of payment of expenses to be incurred in fulfilling the request and such estimated expenses shall be communicated to the requester upon receipt of the request."
Please consider this letter an estimate of expenses related to the retrieval of the public records request. Further, please be advised that the search is contingent upon receipt of $68,962.00. In addition, review costs will be calculated as soon as a representative sample of e-mails is retrieved from the system. An additional payment to cover those expenses may then be required.
Requiring prepayment of expenses should not be construed as an attempt to withhold records. Scott County has had similar requests in the past and estimates in those instances have also been provided by our Information Technology Department. The basis for the estimates in the prior cases are in line with those provided in response to your request.
Unless prepayment for expenses is received within ten (10) days of this communication, I will consider the request for information withdrawn. Of course, I will consider waiting longer than that if it is your intention to proceed but need additional time to secure the necessary funds.
Robert L. Cusack
Assistant Scott County Attorney