Politics & Government

Lawmakers look to divert public-records awards

Arthur West has spent much of the last 20 years in battles with agencies that have fumbled or denied his requests for public records.

The Olympia man’s latest win was a $187,000 settlement from the Port of Olympia to, in part, drop a pair of public-records lawsuits.

Now a measure in the Legislature could limit West’s ability to collect — or even recoup his costs — by giving judges greater discretion and redirecting court-awarded fines against agencies to a state account.

Current law requires judges to award all costs, including reasonable attorney fees, to people who prove they were wrongfully denied access to public records. Courts are also allowed to require agencies to pay a requester for every day they fail to disclose a record.

House Bill 1691 would give courts leeway to decide whether to require agencies to reimburse the legal costs of people who prove violations of the public records law. The measure also would divert any per-day penalties levied against agencies to the Secretary of State’s archives and records management account. A portion could go to records requesters if they prove financial loss.

Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said he hopes the bill would allow state agencies to get a better handle on records requests by reducing the number they receive, while preventing individuals from using public records as a way to make money.

“There’s a small amount of people making a lot of money off the state over these requests,” Van De Wege said.

He’s backed by state agencies that have expressed frustration over people who’ve made thousands of dollars from public-records lawsuits.

Allyson Brooks of the Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation said her agency once received a request for 22,000 records from someone whose attorney began asking about the settlement before she could start the process of providing the records.

“That’s where Rep. Van De Wege is trying to get at,” she said. “That ‘give me 22,000 records or pay me to go away’—that’s what this (bill) is trying to do.”

Candice Bock from the Association of Washington Cities said agencies would remain committed to providing records to people who request them. The legislation would just remove the profitability of the requests.

“It does not change the fact that we’re required to provide public records,” she said. “And it does not change the fact that if we fail to comply, we will still be subject to these penalties.”

Critics of the bill, such as West, say the legislation is a disservice to citizens who are trying to monitor government. He says that, while he has made thousands from public records battles, his experience isn’t typical for the majority of people who take agencies to court.

If citizens get money for proving an agency violated the Public Records Act, it’s a fair tradeoff, West said.

“It’s not an opportunity to go and print money,” he said. “The public gets a good value in the money that is spent, and the value of open and accountable government can’t be quantified.”

Rowland Thompson from the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington said the bill would put litigants who represent themselves in court at a disadvantage. He said they rely on court awards to compensate them for time lost fighting the cases and that the bill wrongly recasts those awards as fines.

“That is unprecedented in terms of the Legislature’s reach into litigation,” he said. “This is not a fine. It’s an award on the basis of litigation.”