The file room on site was bulging. The file cabinets overflowed. Folders lived on top of the cabinets with arrows and sticky notes pointing to them. People complained about papercuts. Off-site, decades of active and inactive files were stored together chronologically, making it difficult to respond to requests for records about specific facilities and to remove outdated files from closed facilities. Something had to change.
The Industrial Waste Program works with industries to prevent pollution. And they take record-keeping seriously. Some of their active files date back to the 1960’s. As long as a facility is in business, its Industrial Waste Program files are still active and must be kept. Even after a business closes, Industrial Waste must keep the inactive records for a certain period of time.
A plan for the records
Administrator Kristin Painter and Industrial Waste Program Supervisor Despina Strong made a plan to better manage these records. They hired a temporary employee, Grace Smith, to implement it. Another temporary employee, Awet Kassa, eventually took on the job after Grace was promoted.
How they did it
Step 1 – Update the on-site files and make space
Grace attacked the on-site filing room. First, she removed all inactive facility files. Then she went through the active facility files and removed any documents that were over three years old. She had to check the date on every document in every file! She sent all the records she removed to off-site storage. After clearing space in the file room, Grace organized other types of Industrial Waste records. In total, this took her six months!
Step 2 – Create an electronic file index
“Kristin was the mastermind behind the electronic spreadsheets,” Despina said. Kristin said developing the index took “a strong understanding of how to determine what records were active versus inactive, or which ones could be connected to the Duwamish Superfund site.” At the end of the project, Awet had three file index spreadsheets. Two of them were 60 pages long! These spreadsheets will help future employees locate records quickly.
Step 3 –Update the active files stored off site
Awet tackled the older files stored off site. She reorganized active files by facility, instead of by year. This makes it easier to find all files for a specific facility and to pull inactive files when they reach the end of their retention time after a facility closes.
Step 4 – Update the inactive files stored off site
Next, Awet separated older inactive files into three groups: 1) Facilities near the Duwamish Superfund area, which the program must keep; 2) Facilities that closed from 2010-2017 ; 3) Facilities that closed before 2010 and have files that may be old enough to throw away.
King County Records’ retention schedules determine when to dispose of these records.
Awet spent six months on steps 3 and 4. She processed over 6,000 individual folders. Working through the two steps meant she had to order the boxes from off-site storage several times. No vacant cubicle was safe from her boxes.
“When I was on vacation, she filled my office with boxes. Awet was very creative at finding space to work,” said Despina.
Investing in careers in wastewater
Bringing in a temporary employee to do this project proved to be a good choice. Despina considered contracting the work out. “But,” she said, “We would still have to supervise a contractor. The temporary staff were here long enough to learn the job and develop plans for getting it done.”
Hiring temporary staff also provided an opportunity to introduce potential employees to careers in wastewater, another one of the division’s goals. The two temporary employees each worked six months on the project. When Grace Smith accepted an environmental planner position, Awet Kassa took her place on the records project. Awet later successfully applied for and earned a real property agent position at WTD.
The filing project was a tedious job, everyone agrees. But it was also an opportunity. Both Grace and Awet say their supervisors, Despina Strong and Katherine Fischer, and manager Chris Townsend, encouraged them to do informational interviews, attend meetings, and take advantage of field trips and other opportunities to learn more about the Wastewater Treatment Division’s work. This approach to “Investing in You” paid off for King County.
Now an environmental planner, Grace said, “My work group is responsible for getting Industrial Waste permits (for WTD’s construction projects). I didn’t know anything about Industrial Waste permits before working on the file project. It feels good that my familiarity with these types of permits will translate to my new position.”
Grace said if she hadn’t been working on the file project there is a good chance she would not have known about opportunities she was qualified for at WTD.
Now a real property agent, Awet said being at King County allowed her to do informational interviews, and when she saw a vacancy, she applied. Awet said, “This sounds like a smaller project. But I looked at it like a big project. I took this as my beginning. I really felt like I was contributing when I sent my first batch of boxes back to off-site storage.”
Pride for a job well done
The project team is proud of what they accomplished and the spirit of service that went into it.
“I am so happy I’m the one who is contributing; that I can make it better for the next person,” said Awet. “Next time there is a records request, it will be much easier to pull just a few boxes for the same facility.”
Despina just retired at the end of 2017. She said she “feels good about leaving the records in this state.”