Lawmaker calls for study of public records law reforms

OLYMPIA — Leaders of local governments frustrated by the growing amount of time and tax dollars spent satisfying those with a voracious demand for public records shouldn’t count on help from the state anytime soon.

A House member who sought changes in the public records law to fend off what are perceived as exorbitant requests from those with questionable motives now says the state must gather more information on the magnitude of the problem.

“I think what we ought to do is take a step back and get some data,” said Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, who drafted a bill earlier this year to make it easier for local governments to get a court order against filling some requests.

Takko said he knows there are small cities, counties and special districts expending vast portions of their small budgets on requests that they feel are intended to harass employees rather than uncover wrongdoing.

“How big a problem is it? It’s pretty anecdotal,” he said. “You need to get some statistics.”

Takko made his comments Friday after hearing representatives of the Ruckelshaus Center suggest there may be other means beyond the courts to curb the appetite of requesters causing officials’ headaches.

Agencies can move to put more public documents online and do a better job of managing records so it won’t take as long to compile them, said Chris Page, program director for the center, which is a joint venture of the University of Washington and Washington State University.

And by creating “a culture of cooperation,” local officials and requesters may be able to sit down together and collaboratively settle any disputes.

“There’s no magic bullet,” Page said. “The issues are complex and important to people.”

An alliance of government forces has spent the past few years battling for changes in the public records law. When Takko introduced his House Bill 1128 earlier this year, representatives of cities, counties, school districts and prosecuting attorneys testified about the challenges they faced.

Several cited the situation of Gold Bar, where the cost of records requests and lawsuits related to them had run up such a tab that city leaders at one point considered filing bankruptcy and disbanding the town.

After setting aside Takko’s bill, the Legislature put up $25,000 for the Ruckelshaus Center to assess the situation and provide guidance. The center seeks to be a neutral portal for information and resources for resolving conflicts.

Center staff conducted in-depth interviews with 35 people including Ramsey Ramerman, an attorney with the city of Everett, and Gold Bar Mayor Joe Beavers.

On Friday, Page outlined the preliminary findings to the House Local Government committee and the House Government Operations and Elections committee. The final report is due Dec. 15.

Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, chairman of the House Government Operations and Elections Committee, said a solution is needed but finding one may be too much to expect in the upcoming 60-day legislative session.

“I think we need to figure it out. Local governments keep coming in and saying it’s a huge problem,” he said. “I don’t think it comes up. I think the process of getting a resolution is going to be going on outside of here.”

Nancy Truitt Pierce of the Monroe School District Board of Directors said she hoped the Legislature does try to address it, because those so-called problem requests continue to come in.

“We still need some way to make sure no one is going to abuse the privilege” of the public records law, she said. “It’s not fair to our taxpayers to have to pay for someone who is abusing the privilege.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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