Anonymous records request seeks data from 1,000 county phones

EVERETT — A new anonymous records request has left Snohomish County grappling yet again with technological challenges and huge demands on staff time.

A person using the name Mr. Public Requestor emailed in June to demand all data from all active government cellphones being used by county employees. Audio, video and pictures were sought, along with applications, operating system data and everything else that makes a smart phone work.

Extracting all of that information could take up to four hours for each of the county’s 1,000 cell phones, tech employees estimate. That’s not counting time to redact personal information, computer passwords and other details exempt from public disclosure.

In the meantime, county workers have been told not to delete anything from their work phones.

“You have to look at every picture, you have to look at every text,” said Teri Lawrie, a public records assistant in the county’s tech department. “I wouldn’t be comfortable with saying how many hours of work.”

Mr. Public Requestor’s demand is the largest active request for government records at the county. But it’s only the latest in a series of increasingly numerous and complex requests for public records that have left state agencies and local governments throughout Washington playing catch-up.

Auditor studying Public Records Act

The state auditor is studying the demands the 1972-vintage Public Records Act is putting on more than 2,500 state and local agencies. Findings could help lawmakers explore ways for local and state agencies to recoup costs.

Snohomish County already has substantial information about the records requests it receives. For years it has kept track using a database.

Among other things, the county has compiled details about the information being sought and the name, email address or pseudonym used by the requester. In most but not all instances, county employees also have kept a running log of the time they’ve spent responding.

The Daily Herald analyzed information from more than 30,000 public records requests made between January 2011 and fall 2014.

Snohomish County’s most-prolific requester? The information company LexisNexis claimed that spot with more than 6,700 records requests made during the period studied. Most focused on police reports about run-of-the-mill car accidents, home break-ins and other property damage. The information was retrieved to assist in processing insurance claims.

The county received thousands of similar requests directly from insurance providers, communications companies and utilities. The Snohomish County PUD, for example, made nearly 500 records requests, mostly to document car crashes into power poles, spokesman Neil Neroutsos said.

While accident reports may be the most common type of request, they’re “actually the simplest requests to process because they don’t require redactions,” said Sara Di Vittorio, the deputy prosecutor who advises county employees how to respond to public records requests.

The county has entered into a contract with LexisNexis that should largely automate requests for accident reports.

Other frequent users include local public defenders and other attorneys. On hundreds of occasions in recent years, they have turned to the records laws to insure they’ve received all the police reports about their clients’ cases. Journalists and environmental activists also number among those most frequently filing requests.

‘Weapon of retaliation’?

The data also document demands from people the county claims use the state’s records law as a “weapon of retaliation and a weapon of harassment.” In state legislative hearings, the county usually cites the workload created by Anne Block, a blogger from Gold Bar who has entangled local officials in multiple lawsuits and has made scores of records requests.

But some of the most challenging requests have come from people on the county payroll, the data show.

Take the demands made by Kevin Hulten, the former aide to Aaron Reardon. In 2012 he adopted the pseudonym “Edmond Thomas” to covertly seek information about his boss’ political rivals. Meeting Hulten’s demands was such a chore that it used the equivalent labor of a county staffer working full time for nearly six weeks.

Meanwhile, a single request in 2012 from an information systems employee who wanted records about coworkers ate up nearly 150 hours of staff time.

Those demands are miniscule compared to the task Mr. Public Requestor has brought to the county. In the worst case, county staff calculate it could take nearly two years just to download the data from the phones. That doesn’t include time for redaction.

It’s unclear who is behind the demands. Mr. Public Requestor did not answer emails sent by The Daily Herald last week.

Anonymous requests also honored

The county must treat all records requests the same, whether the person making them is anonymous or uses a real name, Di Vittorio said.

While Mr. Public Requestor’s identity remains a mystery, the person has been in contact with the county and shown a willingness to help narrow the request.

“It appears that they’re somebody familiar with the inner-workings of the county,” Di Vittorio said.

The requester, for example, opted not to seek records for phones used by human services employees. Data on those are likely to require heavy redaction because they often involve working with people in vulnerable circumstances, including cases requiring medical privacy.

So far, the request has cost the county thousands of dollars, said Lawrie, the public disclosure assistant from the tech department.

Deputies have had to leave patrol to submit phones for data extraction.

The county bought $1,900 worth of software to speed up the extraction process, Lawrie said.

Under current law, the county has no mechanism for recouping costs for time spent gathering those electronic records.

The county is allowed to charge for the cost of a compact disc or other storage device used to provide the records.

That apparently stymied a massive request last year, made by a man who anonymously asked for every record created by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office back to 1776 — 85 years before the county incorporated. That forced the county to retain data that it normally routinely discards. The county closed the request after the man refused to pay $1.50 for a compact disc with the first installment of his records.

Snohomish County is hardly alone in being forced to devote more staff and taxpayer money to fulfill public records requests.

In recent years, an alliance of leaders of cities, counties and special districts have pressed state lawmakers for help dealing with requesters whose intentions they question. And they’ve asked for the ability to charge a higher price for those records produced and provided electronically.

But lawmakers have been reticent to act in part because they really don’t know the scope of the problem. They hear stories of escalating costs and how the sheer number of requests can swamp small towns.

Study results in spring

They are turning to the state auditor for answers.

This year, in the state budget, lawmakers directed the auditor to find out what the 2,529 state and local agencies subject to the Public Records Act expend in time and money to uphold the law. The study results are due in March.

“We were really interested in pursuing this because we hear so much about this issue from the entities we audit,” said Susan Hoffman, principal of the Performance Audit Team that will conduct the study. “We think it’s important to have this kind of information.”

The state hopes to complete the work by late November.

Hoffman said the study also will include information on how other states wrestle with records challenges and some best practices in use around Washington and elsewhere.

Auditors may decide to delve deeper into specific circumstances in a community. A case study could help illuminate specific challenges faced by local governments, she said.

Auditors don’t plan on making specific recommendations for how agencies should handle requests or what price they could charge for records, she said.

“We’re really focused on providing information,” she said.

That means that for now, Snohomish County and other local governments must chart their own path. The stakes are high, with potential penalties of $100 per day when records aren’t supplied. Settling public records lawsuits has cost the county more than $1 million during the past year.

Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report. Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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