He’s back, and he’s making government agencies crazy again.
Burien computer geek Tim Clemans recently made a massive public records request to the City of Seattle. He asked to see every public record the city has produced — ever — in nearly 150 years since incorporation.
Then he went to Des Moines and Algona and every other city in King County — 39 in all — and made the same request. He wanted to see every record they had on paper, in email, in text messages, on video, on audio and in any other format.
I wrote about Clemans last year.
Then 24 and living with his mom, the self-taught computer programmer rose from obscurity to become the Washington’s open government darling or nemesis, depending on whom you asked.
In 2014, Clemans filed 30 massive requests for Seattle Police Department dispatch calls, police reports and videos after the Washington State Supreme Court ruled police couldn’t withhold dash cam video for three years.
Rather than fight him, the department asked Clemans to develop software to help them. Eventually, they hired him. His software blurred the videos to eliminate privacy concerns, so police could routinely post them online at the end of each shift.
Citizens could see enough from the fuzzy videos to know which ones to request. Police manually reviewed requested videos, releasing images the public should be able to see.
“My priority is ultimately to help,” he said then. “This is a technology problem.”
Last September, he won a Key Award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
Then came Round 2.
In October, Clemans resigned from SPD, telling The Seattle Times “basically, it all went to Hell” after a clash with managers. In the next 24 hours, he filed 300 more giant requests with the department.
By December, Clemans had bombed all 39 King County cities with the all-records requests.
He said he wants to post the records on his own website for the public in a more usable form. For free.
The reaction was predictable and understandable.
Police departments, cities and other agencies met, furiously scheming on how to manage Clemans’ requests. He now serves as their poster child for two bill proposals working through the state Legislature.
If passed, the laws would reduce the amount of time public agencies spend responding to records requests.
They also risk infringing on the right of citizens to know what their government is up to.
House Bill 2576 would allow a local agency to limit the number of hours it spends responding to public records requests, as long as it’s reasonable and not fewer than 10 hours a month.
It would create a commission to adjudicate disputes between agencies and requesters. It would allow agencies to charge for records requested for commercial purposes and would require requesters to declare if that is their intent.
The second bill addresses how agencies handle police body camera video, which by its nature can lead to massive requests. Police departments using body cams create thousands of hours of video to manage and make public.
House Bill 2362 limits requests to specific videos and passes the cost of processing back to the requester in most cases.
If you’re a government agency, those provisions make sense.
But see them through the eyes of a person trying, for instance, to get information before a city council passes an ordinance about a local tax measure.
Allowing a city to spend as few as 10 hours a month producing documents leaves room for an ill-intended official to shut out politically disfavored requesters.
The bills would take away some fundamental provisions of the state Public Records Act — that you don’t have to tell agencies why you want the records, that you aren’t charged for their processing, and that you can ask for a swath of records around a given date or activity to zero in on what you’re looking for.
Current law allows cities to produce records in batches at a reasonable rate. As long as they give an estimate for how long it will take to fulfill the request, they can share a small portion at a time. Even if that estimate is 100 years.
And current law allows cities to deny a request. Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes denied Clemans because the records he requested weren’t “identifiable,” as state law requires.
“You have not defined your request by topic, time frame, custodian, or any other identifier that would provide a meaningful description helpful for City staff charged with finding the record,” Holmes wrote.
If legislators think the law needs changing, why not insert language clarifying that a request for essentially all the records of an agency is not a request for identifiable records?
Clemans’ behavior has encouraged some agencies to use technology to help them manage public records, and to routinely post documents online even before people ask for them. He says that’s his goal.
But his tactics are costing cities thousands of dollars to assemble scores of documents when Clemans now admits there is “no way to scan them all with my cellphone and read them in my lifetime.” His website, insideyourgovernment.com, has no documents posted on it as he tries to figure out the logistics.
“I think I was very naive about it,” Clemans said.
Unfortunately, his actions have bolstered agencies that say providing public information takes too much time away from their “real jobs.”
The Legislature might need to act, but it should not overreact. There is a fundamental right at stake: the public’s right to know.