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DEQ is 2nd in state for most public record requests

Kristen Mercer, left, and Leela Yellesetty handle thousands of public records requests every year.

Every hour of every day, on average, DEQ receives a public records request. In 2018, the agency received a total of 4,635 separate requests for data, emails, reports and other documents – making it second only to the Oregon State Police for volume of requests among state agencies.

On the receiving end are Leela Yellesetty, public records officer, and Kristen Mercer, public records coordinator, whose job is to ensure a timely response, whether the request comes from a news reporter, a member of the public or anyone else with an interest in DEQ’s work.

“One of the things I love about working in public records is getting to see all the diverse and important work taking place across the agency,” says Yellesetty. “It’s impressive.”

Additionally, she says, public access to DEQ’s records help “showcase our work to the broader community. It’s also a great way for us as an agency to get a pulse on what the public is interested in so we can get them the information they need in new and better ways.”

Every document produced at DEQ is considered a public record, although a small fraction may be exempt from disclosure. People request records from DEQ for all kinds of reasons. A contractor wants to know about storm water permits at a certain site before building or remodeling. A reporter wants access to emails regarding a recent spill. A real estate agent needs documentation on an underground storage tank.

Yellesetty and Mercer make every attempt to fill the request within a few days, and nine out of 10 are filled within 15 business days.

Mercer credits public records coordinators within each DEQ program and region for the quick handling of record requests. “They do the heavy lifting,” she said. “For instance, we just got 203 requests from one company, and they are taking it in stride. They truly are the ones who get these requests completed in a timely manner.”

In other words, it’s a team effort, she said. According a recent survey, some 60 percent of DEQ staff had helped respond to a public records request.

Yellesetty and Mercer recently sent out an anonymous survey to DEQ records requesters. The vast majority of responders expressed satisfaction with how their requests were handled. Here is what one had to say:

“Of all the agencies I have requested info from, DEQ is the most outstanding. I told that to the Governor’s public records task force committee. They already had heard that DEQ was an example of outstanding transparency. Thanks!”

And, DEQ is working to respond even faster by investing in a new system to modernize the public records request process. The new system will include an online portal where the team can interact with requesters, including posting records directly online.

“It will also allow self-service for some requests,” Yellesetty said. “Our goal is to provide the best service we can to the public.”

— Harry Esteve, communications manager

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