City makes getting a needed document easy, relatively fast


by Jack Mayne

The woman who had a minor car accident the other day needs a copy of the police report of the incident while a couple looking for a new home want to know how city inspections of the property have gone in the past.

The old way was go to City Hall and hope someone can find what you need.

The new way, go to the Des Moines city website and make a request fast and easy.

Des Moines has one of the more complete on-line sites for just about anything you need to find out or get a copy of and getting that city record you need for whatever means only filling out an on-line form and eventually paying a small amount to cover the cost.

System installed in 2013
Before last year, Des Moines did what most cities did when a citizen wanted a copy of an official city document: dig around in the files and then photo copy it and either mail it or hand them a copy over the counter.

But Bonnie Wilkins, who became Des Moines city clerk last year, found out about a web-based system the city had purchased but had not installed.

“When I started, I said ‘end of that,’ we are going to go electronically and we are going to make this so easy that people are just going to enjoy submitting them (disclosure requests) or getting them.”

So, now anyone with a computer hooked to the Internet can go to the Des Moines website (careful, don’t end up with that place in Iowa) – find the tab that says “How Do I … ?” scan down to “Request” and under that tab you will find “Submit a Public Records Request.” On the right part of that page, next to the photo of sailboats, you will see “Quick Links” and the first item there is “Public Records Request Form.” Click https://desmoines.civicweb.net/Items/Item/public.aspx?Id=8618 for the form, then fill it out and click “submit” and the city then does the rest.

“We will, in a timely manner we will find the record you are looking for,” she said. “If we have it, we will submit it back to you and, if we don’t have it, we will explain why we don’t have it.”

All citizen requests go to Wilkins who uses the iCompass program to figure out which department would have the requested record, sends it to that department and key people are designated to find whatever was requested.

The various people designated to locate needed records all “rather keep track of each other” so the process keeps moving, Wilkins said.

“A public record is a high priority in the city,” she said.

Common or uncommon records
Two commonly sought records are police accident records and such things as housing inspection reports citizens may seek before they buy a house or other type of building. Sometimes, however, a citizen gets mad at a city council member or a city official and wants a copy every email on a subject.

If it is a building record, she sends it to the building department and after a day or so, she checks with the department as to whether the record is available immediately, or whether a letter needs to go to the requester to inform them it will take a longer time to find what they are seeking.

Not all records are easily available in city offices; some may still be on paper and be in storage at city hall or at a remote site – or have to be pulled from a trove of similar records.

“We are getting better about being computer generated but we still have a lot of records that are not in our system so we have physical records that we have to find in a dusty old storeroom. If it is at an off-site storage location, it might take us a few days.”

Wilkins said she either writes a letter or sends email to the requester if the time will be longer than first thought.

Time also is governed by the request, she said. If a person wants a specific document, such as a building permit, then they look only for that item, but if the ask for “all records” on a subject, then the search much take in a wide area of documents and will take longer.

Fill out the form
Des Moines requires all requests put onto the city form, even if it is a simple request for something quickly available.

“We want to be sure we are getting people exactly what they want,” said Wilkins. “Sometimes you verbalize something a bit differently than you really want when it is in writing. If you verbalize it to me, it is my interpretation of what you are saying and I might not have it right. We want to be sure we get it right. If you put it in writing, then we can communicate about it. We can make sure we are on the same page.”

At times, a discussion with the requester can clarify what they want or perhaps the city worker can help broaden or change the request to provide the information actually needed.

The city has a fee schedule for the various type of documents and searches and that is also on the city’s website here.

Sometimes confidential
Sometimes the requested documents contain private or privileged material that under state law may not be made public, so Wilkins and the city staff must go through the documents and edit out inappropriate or confidential material.

“We have to do that with everything,” she said. “We have to redact things that are personal (like birthdates on drivers licenses).”

Sometimes there are attorney-client matters or subjects that are still under investigation or have not been approved for public disclosure that must be edited out of documents.

There is one person in each city department – two in the police department – that are required to go through all documents to be sent to those requesting documents.


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