Bill would allow public records fees to be based on size of request

OLYMPIA — An alliance of cities, counties, schools and special districts are trying a new tactic to deal with the challenges created by growing demand for public records.

These entities failed the past few years to convince Washington lawmakers they need better tools to repel requests for volumes of records from those whose motives they question.

They abandoned that pursuit this session, asking instead for the ability to charge a fee for the large requests they fulfill electronically rather than on paper.

On Friday, the House Appropriations Committee approved House Bill 1684 allowing state agencies and local governments to charge a fee based on the size of an electronic file containing records.

It now goes to the Rules Committee where another bill modifying the public records law awaits action. This one, House Bill 1917, would exempt most video from police body cameras and dashboard cameras from disclosure.

While both bills are positioned to advance, supporters know they are far from getting either enacted this session which runs through late April.

The state’s Public Record Act is a “sacred doctrine” and what are perceived as large scale changes to it are not well-received, said Candice Bock, government relations advocate for the Association of Washington Cities.

“The hurdles are big. We’d like to see the bills happen this session,” she said. “But we’re happy to have a constructive conversation.”

House Bill 1684 would allow local governments and special districts to provide 10 megabytes of data for free and charge up to 15 cents per megabyte after that. If information is put on a disc, the cost of that disc and postage to mail it can be collected. It also allows a charge of 2 cents per page to scan paper records. With video, the bill provides five minutes free and no more than 10 cents per minute after that.

At a public hearing Thursday, supporters said existing law lets agencies charge up to 15 cents a page for photocopying but is silent on files transmitted electronically. The change won’t bring in a lot of money but every bit is appreciated, they said.

“It is in my opinion a reasonable request,” said Sara Di Vittorio, a deputy Snohomish County prosecutor who used a recent filing for records to the county to illustrate the difference it might make.

She said the request generated 1,892 emails totaling 236.8 megabytes of data. If, for argument’s sake, each email filled one page of paper, the county could have charged $281.85, she said. Instead the material was saved onto a CD for which the county charged 29 cents. Under the proposed bill, the county could receive as much as $35.52, she said.

“We don’t want to stop providing public records,” testified Deb Merle, director of government relations for the Washington State School Directors Association. “Serial requesters don’t come by very often but when they do they cost a lot of money that doesn’t get into the classroom.”

Rocco Gianni, a member of the South Whidbey School District board of directors, said his district has spent $500,000 thus far responding to requests from a former teacher. That money could be better spent on students, he said.

“While this practice is legal it is not moral or ethical,” he said. “This is a crime against children.”

A lobbyist for the newspaper industry cautioned that what looks like a simple change could result in creating a financial barrier to some requesters.

“The devil is in the details,” said Rowland Thompson of Allied Daily Newspapers of which The Herald is a member.

There are many formats governments can use for storing and transmitting data and the bill needs to spell out the differences more clearly, he said. The concern is agencies could choose a more dense and data-rich method that leads to a bigger cost to the requester, he said.

After the hearing, Thompson said there may not be a solution that enables agencies to recover costs.

“It is part of doing business,” he said.

Meanwhile, questions about what to do with video generated by body cameras worn by law enforcement officers have surfaced this session.

House Bill 1917 would, for the most part, exempt police recordings from body cameras, dashboard cameras and building surveillance from the public records law. It would limit access to recordings to a person directly involved in the specific incident or who obtain a court order for the video.

The bill also would empower judges to allow police to listen in on other people’s conversations surreptitiously, which state law currently forbids. And it would create a task force to study issues surrounding the use of body cameras by police

Debate on this bill has pitted those in the law enforcement community, who want to tightly control access to videos, against open records advocates, who contend the videos are too important to summarily block from public view.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said this week that he understands law enforcement wants action this session but he is hearing from many others that more time is needed to craft a workable proposal.

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

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