Debate begins anew on retooling state public records law

OLYMPIA — A crowd filled a legislative hearing Friday to weigh in on proposals that could bring about the most significant changes in the state’s Public Records Act in years.

Two dozen people testified on a pair of bills intended to update Washington’s sacred doctrine of open government to reflect changes in technology and the public’s increased appetite for records. Another 82 signed in but did not speak.

The bills call for imposing new fees for obtaining digital records, new restrictions on automated “bot” requests and new provisions aimed at steering agencies and those seeking records into mediation to resolve disputes.

Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, and Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, are steering the legislative effort. They said they want to improve responsiveness and help agencies recoup a greater share of the costs.

They also see the new fees as a means of impeding serial requesters whose constant demands can slow handling of other requests and, in some cases, hamper day-to-day operations.

“Financially, it can just cripple an agency,” Nealey told the House Committee on State Government, Elections and Technology. “I think this will definitely slow down vexatious requests and that’s the main goal.”

The legislation is a result of meetings McBride and Nealey conducted last year with representatives of cities, counties, school districts, special purpose districts, media outlets, open government organizations and commercial firms that routinely request records.

Several local government officials assured lawmakers Friday they are committed to carrying out the public records law and that the bills will make it easier.

“We are doing a good job but we need your help,” said Klickitat County Commissioner David Sauter.

Not everyone who took part in last year’s meetings is embracing the bills yet.

Rowland Thompson, lobbyist for Allied Daily Newspapers, which includes The Daily Herald, and Toby Nixon, of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, each expressed a desire to see the mediation provisions removed. They also had concerns with the proposed fee schedule.

However, both asked committee members to advance the bill so negotiation continues on the language.

“This framework is workable. It is an update that needs to happen,” Thompson said. “What we’re trying to do is to get in the way of vexatious requesters without getting in the way of normal requesters.”

House Bill 1594, which McBride sponsored and has 30 co-sponsors, directs agencies to offer mediation with a requester when there is a disagreement regarding disclosure, according to an analysis of the bill. If the requester declines, that could be considered if litigation follows.

This bill also seeks $25,000 to study the feasibility of creating an online portal for the public to easily access records of cities, counties, school districts and the state, similar to what exists in Utah.

House Bill 1595, which Nealey drafted and has 38 co-sponsors, inserts new language into the law stating a “public record request must be for an identifiable record.” It goes on to say a request for “all or substantially all” of an agency’s records is not valid.

The bill allows an agency to deny multiple requests that are automatically generated (bot) from the same source within a 24-hour period “if it causes excessive interference with other essential functions of the agency.”

And it establishes new charges for electronically produced records including 10 cents per page scanned into an electronic format, 10 cents per minute of audio or video recording, and 10 cents per gigabyte of data.

Several people said the new fees, mediation provisions and restrictive language regarding requests as putting hurdles to the public’s ability to obtain records.

“This is part of a continuing pattern to eviscerate the Public Records Act in small steps,” said Arthur West, of Olympia, a prolific requester of public records. Last year he sued the city of Everett after it denied his request for copies of police surveillance videos of bikini baristas. The city later settled, and provided videos, to avoid a courtroom battle.

The law is a powerful tool to expose government wrongdoing, and the proposed bills make it “less effective” and could help shroud agencies in secrecy, said Glen Morgan, executive director of Citizens Alliance for Property Rights. Morgan said his views were his own.

The committee has until Feb. 17 to advance the bills, or they will be considered dead for the session.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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