OLYMPIA — A bill that would allow local agencies to prioritize or delay some public records requests based on their size or cost remains alive, even after failing to get a floor vote in the Washington State House by Wednesday’s cutoff.
House Bill 2576 has been designated as “necessary to implement the budget” and still has a chance of passing this session, even though it didn’t receive a vote in the House by the Legislature’s deadline for bills to pass their house of origin.
Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, the bill’s primary sponsor, said the legislation would allow local agencies to prioritize records requests they fulfill and limit the time they spend on requests based on what is reasonable.
Requests from news media, requests that concern safety and requests that can be filled quickly are just some that will remain a priority, McBride noted.
“What we’re really wanting to do is craft a bill that doesn’t impede our citizens and organizations to get the records that they need, while trying to address things like management and prioritization of requests,” McBride said.
McBride proposed the legislation as a way to deflect overly-broad and extensive requests made to local city and county agencies. State agencies would not be affected by this legislation.
Since its first hearing in front of the House Committee on Local Government, the legislation has been changed.
Earlier versions of the bill established a commission to mediate issues that arise between requesters and local agencies before they go to court, and required requesters who seek records for commercial purposes to cover the costs of fulfilling the request. Both provisions have since been removed from the bill.
In its current version, the measure creates a 16-member task force of lawmakers, open-government advocates, media members, local government representatives and the public, among others. The group would issue recommendations on how to protect access to records while helping local agencies cope with requests and attendant costs.
McBride’s amendments direct the task force to prepare and deliver its recommendations to the Legislature before the 2017 session, which includes debating the merits of establishing the commission, but could provide other means to resolve disputes besides court actions.
Many city officials and local agencies, especially those with small staffs, support the bill because they say they are harassed by people who make large requests that are both time consuming and expensive with no chance to recover costs under current law.
Jason Thompson, executive director of human resources at the Marysville School District, said many school districts have seen an increase in overly broad requests. The school district was hit with a request last year that he said would have cost the district $300,000 to fulfill. That request was for records of every instance of bullying in the school district over the past decade.
“The amount of tax dollars that are being used (to respond to this type of request), that instead could be used for the good of everyone, is really frustrating,” Thompson said. “The average person doesn’t understand the amount of money school districts are spending” on fulfilling records requests.
Proponents of open government oppose the bill because they fear it undermines the integrity of the Public Records Act.
In an email, Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, expressed the organization’s disapproval of the bill staying alive without a floor vote as is required by legislative cutoff dates for bills that aren’t designated as necessary to implement the budget.
“We respectfully disagree, because we believe this to be a policy bill and not a budget bill even though it would require a small expenditure of funds for the task force it creates,” Nixon said. “We encourage the Senate to disagree with the House characterization of the bill as necessary to implement the budget.”
Should McBride’s amended measure find traction among legislators, it could re-emerge as some form of an appropriation bill to qualify for committee consideration. Cutoff for those bills to be considered this session is early March.