Records law needs fixing, not arguing, report says

OLYMPIA — Ask enough experts and they’ll agree that if abuses of Washington’s public records law are costing cities, counties, schools and special districts bundles of money then something should be done.

Researchers at the renowned William D. Ruckelshaus Center did do the asking but didn’t get conclusive data about problems.

Now, in a new report to state lawmakers, the center recommends leaders of local government replace tales of troublesome requesters with facts, to ascertain how widespread these problem requests are.

Then, the report suggests, defenders of the state’s public records law and civic leaders who want changes should come together to sort out their concerns in a summit rather than as opponents in the political arena, as they have been the last couple of years.

“It will be important to clarify beyond anecdotes and perceptions what percentage of local governments is being significantly impacted by records requests, and in what ways and magnitudes, to establish a mutually-accepted set of data,” the report concludes.

The report also offered tips that can be used right away to curb the time and money spent on requests.

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.

By creating “a culture of cooperation,” local officials may be able to settle disputes with requesters through collaboration rather than in court, which results in big legal bills.

The report also calls on state lawmakers to streamline the number of exemptions in the law to help speed up decisions about what can and cannot be withheld.

“I think the analysis shows there are a number of things that can and should be done to improve the way we go about requesting public records and handling public records requests,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

“My fervent hope is the Legislature looks carefully at this report and works to address the issues that are raised,” he said.

Candice Bock, government relations advocate for the Association of Washington Cities, called it a good first step.

“It is good to put all of these issues in one spot and have the input for all of the stakeholders,” she said.

An alliance of government forces has spent the past couple of years battling for changes in the public records law.

Representatives of cities, counties, school districts and prosecuting attorneys have testified in legislative hearings about the challenges they’ve faced from requests requiring hundreds of hours of staff time and thousands of dollars to fulfill.

Several cited the situation in Gold Bar, where the cost of records requests and related lawsuits reportedly ran up such a tab that city leaders at one point claimed they were considering bankruptcy.

In June, lawmakers approved $25,000 for the Ruckelshaus Center to assess the public records situation statewide and to provide guidance. The center, which is a joint venture of Washington State University and the University of Washington, seeks to be a neutral portal for information and resources for resolving conflicts.

Center staff interviewed Nixon, Bock and 33 others representing a cross section of views in this debate.

“The focus of my interview with them was that we were trying to make decisions based on anecdotes and not hard data,” said Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center.

“I was very pleased to see the final report recommend the need for more information to be gathered on the actual cost, time, and use of existing PDA (Public Disclosure Act) tools by local government officials when responding to public records requests,” he said.

Nixon and Bock had hoped a clearer path would emerge in the report.

“I think it raises some good points but they are mostly points the coalition has been raising for years,” Nixon said. “But the fact that it comes through a source the Legislature considers objective, it will help focus attention on them.”

Bock said the association would take part in a summit and not push new legislation.

“There are real problems,” she said.

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

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