A bipartisan pair of state lawmakers working on public disclosure legislation say they are trying to strike a balance between keeping the public informed and managing the costs of responding to records requests.
Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, and Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, are working on proposals to help government officials recoup more of their expenses while also discouraging massive requests that can cripple a city’s or county’s ability to respond.
The efforts come as some local government agencies claim fulfilling public records requests has become too burdensome. Public disclosure advocates maintain the law is indispensable for government transparency.
Nealey plans to introduce a bill to create a fee for copies of electronic records. He said his hope is the fee would discourage unnecessary requests while also helping pay for the work necessary to respond to the requests that remain.
The Public Records Act prohibits government agencies from charging more than 15 cents per page for photocopies of public records, but does not include corresponding language on electronic records, such as emails. Local governments say some people request more because there is no charge.
“It is a big problem,” said House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish.
He pointed to the small city of Gold Bar at the base of the Cascades in Snohomish County. Mayor Lee Hodo said his city spent $81,000 last year fulfilling public records requests.
Hodo said the city hired a clerk to work full time to handle the requests.
He said serial requesters who ask for voluminous amounts of records are creating the problem.
“They ask for things that happened back in 2008 or 2005 and that takes an awful lot of time,” Hodo said.
Kristiansen recommended collaborating with a tech company to create a database or an online portal for government documents, making them more accessible online.
He said this strategy could help government agencies avoid a sizeable portion of requests.
McBride wants the state to hire a consultant to investigate the effectiveness of portals where users can browse a database of government agencies to request records online.
She said it is important the public records law remains strong without acting as a vehicle for people to pester their local governments. She said she wants to keep allowing people to request large amounts of public records, as long as the requests are reasonably specific.
“It doesn’t matter that (public records requests) are big,” McBride said. “They need to be identifiable.”
She and Nealey are working on a plan to curb requests by defining “improper request.” He suggested the definition include requests that seek essentially all records held by an agency.
Occasionally, those requests are created by automated bots — a problem that some local governments have already taken steps to combat.
The city of Seattle, for example, refuses to accept such automated requests, saying they pose a security risk to the government’s computers, according to citywide policy.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said his group could support a charge for electronic copies is reasonable as long as the fee is modest and determined objectively. He’s more concerned with how lawmakers define “improper requests.”
He said a request is only improper if the sole purpose of the request is to bludgeon the agency. Nixon said smaller agencies need to figure out how to budget for requests and maintain a transparent culture.
“The fact is that under the law,” Nixon said, “responding to public records requests is the duty of every agency.”
Forrest Holt: 360-943-7240