Representatives of cities, counties, school districts and prosecuting attorneys told a House panel that exorbitant amounts of time and money are being spent on requests that seem intended to harass employees rather than uncover wrongdoing.
Several cited the situation of Gold Bar where a rising tab of requests and lawsuits could force the city into bankruptcy.
They urged members of the House Local Government Committee to support a bill allowing public agencies to use the courts to block requestors and to limit the hours spent compiling records.
"The public interest is suffering," said Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Dave McEachran who cited as an example the 135 requests from a former county employee that will take until 2016 to fulfill. "This is a huge waste and this bill will help address that."
But community activists and newspaper representatives countered the legislation, House Bill 1128, turns the Public Records Act on its head by letting agencies sue when they don't like the nature of a person's request.
"This can be a tool for intimidation," said Rowland Thompson, lobbyist for Allied Daily Newspapers, an association which includes The Daily Herald.
Bill Will, executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents weekly newspapers, predicted the power will not only be used against people with vendettas but also those with legitimate requests for information about their government.
"It'll become political. It'll become a mess," he said.
Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, a committee member, said, "Clearly there are horror stories. I want to craft something that prevents an employee from harassing an agency. I don't want to stop the press from investigating an official. How do you balance them?"
As written, the Public Records Act requires most documents maintained by state, county and city governments and special districts be made available to the public. The law allows a person to go to court when they feel their request is not being properly handled.
House Bill 1128 would make two significant changes to the act.
First, it would permit a public agency or an employee in the agency to get an injunction against filling a request.
To do so, it would need to convince a judge the purpose of the request was made to harass or intimidate an agency or its employees, in retaliation for an action by the agency, creates an undue burden on the agency or assists in criminal activity.
Liias said the bill language seemed too broad. He wondered if requests for years of records in that case could be considered an undue burden under the bill.
The second change sought by the bill would allow a government body to spend as little as five hours a month responding to requests. In order to curb the hours, they need to make sure several types of records such as meeting agendas, budgets, salary schedules, ordinances and some contracts are available online.
Last year a similar bill failed to get a hearing in the House but did get an airing in the Senate, although it never reached the floor for a vote.
This session could turn out differently.
Twenty-six representatives signed on as sponsors, including Democratic Reps. Mike Sells of Everett, Luis Moscoso of Mountlake Terrace and Cindy Ryu of Shoreline.
At the close of Friday's 90-minute hearing, the prime sponsor sounded prepared to press ahead.
"I'm not sure this is the right bill with the right language," said Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview. "But I think there are some problems out there we need to deal with."
The House Local Government Committee could vote on the bill next week.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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