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The Seemingly Unending Saga of One Open Records Request

Still ongoing!
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I am still trying to figure out where the city is installing surveillance cameras.

Generally, my work does not call on me to file many open records requests. I’m a writer and editor, in some order, depending on the month, and then after that a reporter, and normally here I would list a bunch of other things I am, as a joke. Maybe I would make a few of them rhyme. But I am trying to be serious here, so I won’t.

This next part will sound like throat clearing, but it is germane. The last several months of 2022, four in total, I believe, I was without a vehicle. Though I am notably fond of walking and did walk home from the office at least once, it’s over 9 miles in one direction. Since he lives near me, Tim Rogers graciously offered to ferry me to and from work for the duration of my carlessness.

While I drive, I listen to either movie podcasts (shoutout to Blank Check with Griffin and David and The Big Pic) or extremely loud punk and hardcore. Tim prefers a tight rotation of The Ticket and KERA or KXT, flipping to avoid commercials. Because of this, one day in November I heard on KERA a story that had initially escaped my attention, regarding the city of Dallas purchasing license plate-reading cameras from an outfit from Atlanta called, at the time, Flock Group. (They have since rebranded as Flock Safety and removed the part of the website where co-founder Matt Fleury talked about his favorite soup. Trust me. It existed. I had it bookmarked.)

The City Council had approved an $820,000 expenditure, over five years, for 80 cameras, back in February 2022. But the Dallas Police Department wouldn’t say where they planned to install the cameras. It all felt strange to me. Not quite suspicious. Just strange. The Flock gang, for one thing, was very glib for a company whose business model seemed to be disrupting personal privacy.

When I got to the office after hearing that report, I filed an open records request with the DPD and the city. Both of my requests asked for the same thing, in the same wording: Any emails of other documentation pertaining to the planned locations around the city of the 80 new license plate reading cameras to be purchased from Flock Group in Georgia, expenditure approved by the Dallas City Council in February.

According to my records, I filed this request on November 18, 2022. Shortly thereafter, I got an email response, with the usual boilerplate, which ended by saying that “the Open Records Unit anticipates [emphasis theirs] the information may be provided within 20 business days from the date of this letter, by 10 a.m.”

I was busy doing my writing and editing, in whatever order I needed to, so I did not keep close tabs on how my request was proceeding through the system. And I knew that, since the pandemic and extending well beyond that being an acceptable excuse, the open records system was extremely backed up.

I didn’t hear anything [emphasis mine] for more than one (1) year. On December 6, 2023, at 2:22 p.m., I received a letter from the DPD Open Records Unit. After thanking me for being patient, it said:

“We are about to reach your number, and we are contacting you to make sure you still need the report.”

Hell yes, I still need the report, I yelled at my computer screen and then meekly typed, “Yes, I do, thanks.”

Nothing again for almost one (1) month this time. Just after the new year, on January 2, 2024, at 11:59 a.m., I received an email saying that my public records request had been given a new reference number. So now it showed up in the system as not being quite as old as it actually is, and, hey, I have people to answer to also, so I am not going to hate on someone doing a little creative whatever to keep your sheets looking well tended to. Anyway, the email did not make any promises as to when I would receive what I asked for.

A couple of weeks later, on January 17, there was finally some progress. After all the usual legalese, there was this: “therefore, the City certifies that the requested information will be available for production or inspection no later than 5:00 pm on FEBRUARY 9, 2024 [again, emphasis theirs, and I should note it was also underlined but I can’t figure out how to add that].” Now we are getting somewhere!

On January 29, I finally got a cost estimate from the city. I mean, eventually. It took a little back and forth, but I got an invoice for $180, with the threat that my request would be abandoned if I did not pay in ten (10) business days. I paid the invoice on February 1.

Again, nothing for a while. On March 15, at 3:05 p.m., I received this:

“Dear Zac Crain: The City of Dallas is in receipt of your correspondence. While City staff is working to respond to your request, the department(s) that maintain the requested information are unable to produce it for inspection or duplication within ten (10) business days of the City’s receipt of your request because either a voluminous amount of information is requested or an extensive search is necessary to identity responsive information. In these instances, the Public Information Act permits the City to provide a reasonable time extension to provide the requested information. Pursuant to Section 552.221(d) of the Act, therefore, the City certifies that the requested information will be available for production or inspection no later than 5:00 pm on April 15, 2024 [emphasis theirs again, obviously, and this time it was also highlighted, which, again, I can’t figure out how to do].”

I didn’t really expect to get an answer by then and, spoiler, I did not. I waited a week and then I sent this admittedly catty message:

hello, the previous message said that my documents would be ready no later than 5 p.m. on April 15, 2024. it is now 2:44 on April 23, 2024. still waiting.

It is now May 1 and I have yet to get what I asked for in November 2022 or a response to my latest inquiry.

I know I had some fun here despite saying I would be serious. But do not be fooled. I take this very seriously, and not just for myself. It is difficult to report on the city if the city is being noncompliant to requests. In my case, egregiously so. The fact is, the city has broken state law numerous times during the year and a half it has taken my request to slowly wind its way through the system. I’m sure working in the open records department is a thankless job, but it is a job. Do it.

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Zac Crain

Zac Crain

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Zac, senior editor of D Magazine, has written about the explosion in West, Texas; legendary country singer Charley Pride; Tony…
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