Editorials

Your right to know doesn’t come cheap. Pierce County will charge for electronic public records

In a perfect world, Washingtonians wouldn’t have to pay a fee to obtain public records that rightfully belong to them. Citizens would make a good-faith effort to understand their government and hold it accountable; public servants, in turn, would make a good-faith effort to respond promptly and hand over documents for free.

But the world isn’t perfect, and compromises must be made — including in the arena of government transparency, though it pains us to say so.

The public’s right to know doesn’t come cheap; Washington governments spend $60 million a year responding to requests, according a state estimate. One cause of inflated costs are the mischief-makers, sometimes prison inmates, who file constant or overbroad requests for electronic records. They’ve weaponized Washington’s open-government law to the point they’re hurting it for everyone else.

The Pierce County Council approved a reasonable compromise last week by adopting an across-the-board fee for electronic records — a fee that just might disarm the troublemakers.

The county already charges 15 cents per page for printed copies; now officials will recover some costs of sharing information in the digital realm. It’ll cost 5 cents for every four electronic files a person wants uploaded to email or via other electronic delivery. For a full gigabyte of data, the cost is 10 cents.

Of course, it stinks to have to pay for something that used to be free. But electronic costs are a bargain compared to what you’d pay for the same information on paper.

The county also will take it easy on people who are moderate users of the public-records process. All fees are waived for the first ten pages, or the equivalent quantity of digital data. And a person is eligible for a new waiver every 30 days.

Kudos to Pierce County for adding this provision. Two years ago, when state legislators authorized governments to charge fees for electronic records, they didn’t stipulate a waiver program.

A total of 3,380 public records requests were filed in Pierce County in 2018, so charging additional fees is hardly a booming profit center. But it could deter those who exploit unlimited free electronic records; some prison inmates, in particular, use the law to harass public-safety officials, create a huge burden for records caretakers and force legal settlements.

The county sheriff and prosecutor’s offices say that inmate records’ requests — there were 281 last year — cause big headaches. Calling many of the requests “extremely abusive,” Mike Sommerfeld of the prosecutor’s office told the council that hundreds of hours have been squandered to “essentially subsidize recreational and revenge requests” from individuals who have scores to settle with prosecutors.

The change, he said, will allow officials to fulfill legitimate requests from sincere citizens in a more timely manner.

We agree that timeliness is crucial for the public interest, and we urge Pierce County officials to track and share how the new fee structure affects their responsiveness.

Meanwhile, here are a few tidbits of advice for cost-conscious public-records hounds:

* Always ask if documents can be provided in electronic form. You’ll save money if records clerks avoid the photocopier. You’ll save even more if you simply ask to inspect the records; government can’t charge a penny if all you want to do is look and take notes.

* Before requesting or paying for documents, go to open.piercecounty.gov, the county’s online portal that allows free access to a growing trove of public records, maps and datasets.

The rights of Washingtonians under the Public Records Act should never be treated as a commodity to be bought, sold or bartered. Making records easily accessible and widely affordable ought to be a sacred trust for government officials.

By combining nominal electronic fees with a sensible waiver, and by posting more and more records online, Pierce County is upholding that trust.

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