Governments look to change ways public gets information

By Phil Ferolito

The Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA — Last year Yakima County responded to 2,453 requests for public documents. Many of those had multiple parts, each requiring research of thousands of documents.

For example, one recent request in the county’s planning department contained 10 boxes of documents.

Answering requests isn’t always simple. Documents must be reviewed to redact confidential information, a process that could take weeks or months depending on the size and scope of the request, said the county’s public records officer, Stormy Miller.

“People think they’re just going to put in their record requests and get their documents — and it’s not that easy,” she said.

Meanwhile, as government agencies grapple with a growing number of requests, advancements in technology further complicate responses.

Now cities and counties statewide are unifying behind a push to change the Public Records Act that would charge fees for electronic documents and require disputes over public disclosure requests be solved through dispute resolution rather than in court. It’s unclear how much the fee would be but the thought is it would be comparable to the 15 cents typically charged for paper copies.

Other proposed changes to the law would include requiring clear language governing how requests are to be made, and providing municipalities with technical and funding assistance in improving records management.

Spearheaded by the Association of Washington Cities, the effort also has the support of the Washington State Association of Counties.

Approved by voters in 1972, the public records act protects citizens’ right to know how their governments operate and is a tool to provide accountability.

“We’re not looking for anything too radical,” said Josh Weiss, policy and legislative director of the association of counties in Olympia. “Our members are often viewed as being opposed to open government, but that’s not the case at all.”

A group composed of city, county, state and media representatives has been refining changes that eventually will be proposed to state lawmakers.

There are three draft bills now in Olympia proposing fees for electronic documents, improving training and software for records managements, and establishing a court similar to a small claims court that would exclusively handle disputes over records requests.

Those changes would help agencies respond more quickly and efficiently to requests, said Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, who is working on the bills.

“It’s an essential part of government that our local agencies produce documents to the public quickly and efficiently when they are requested,” she said.

Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima, also supports the proposed changes. He previously served on the Yakima City Council.

“When I was on the City Council, we had to hire a person just to do public records requests,” he said. “It’s become a very costly thing for the taxpayers, and what it does is it takes away resources from other things.”

Media representatives aren’t sold on all the proposals but primarily support charging for electronic documents, said Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, which advocates for government transparency and provides newspapers with legal advice concerning public disclosure.

“We’re not going to let them change any penalties, procedures on how you go about a lawsuit,” he said. “None of that’s changing.”

Increasing requests

According to a study conducted by the state Auditor’s Office, records requests increased by 36 percent statewide between 2011 and 2015. Last year alone statewide governments spent more than $60 million fulfilling 114,000 records requests.

The city of Yakima, which responded to 1,872 requests last year, spends about $500,000 a year responding to such inquiries, said city spokesman Randy Beehler. The city and county continue to see slight increases in requests, with the city receiving 1,903 in 2015 and 1,788 the previous year.

In 2014, the county was hit with a total of 2,038 requests, and in 2015 the number was 2,158 before topping at 2,453 last year.

Broad requests that come in seeking volumes of information seemingly without specific intent are more of a problem, Beehler said.

“We often get very broad requests and it becomes very challenging — requests saying (they) want all documents that include a word, such as Randy,” Beehler said. “Well, I’ve worked for the city for 25 years and there are other Randys that work here.”

Such requests can bog down operations by forcing staff to wade through volumes of documents, he said.

“One of the biggest challenges we face is every line of every document has to be reviewed for potential redactions,” he said. “That’s what becomes so time-consuming for us and what makes it difficult for us to keep up with the volume of requests we get. If we release the wrong stuff, we could get hit with a lawsuit.”

Some requests come from people or law firms with ulterior motives, Weiss said.

“Some intentions are not to get public records, but to harass agencies that fired them, or law firms looking to trip up government agencies in attempt to be awarded attorney fees they get reimbursed for,” he said.

Technology change

Email and electronic files may be responsible for increases in records requests.

Nowadays, most government agencies store documents electronically and can simply respond to records requests electronically.

But the electronic exchange is more beneficial to the one making the request than the agency providing the documents, which still have to be reviewed thoroughly for potential redactions.

There are no fees for receiving electronic documents; paper documents typically cost the requester about 15 cents a page in copy charges.

Some government agencies are even swarmed with automatic email requests called chatbots from one requester several times a day, Weiss said.

“You get a bot every 15 seconds seeking a different request,” he said.

“That example came out of Snohomish County. It’s not a common thing, but it’s not a unique thing either.”

Placing some sort of charge on electronic documents would force people to pause before making frivolous requests and would help government agencies recoup some of the cost of having to produce records, Thompson said.

“We’re negotiating our way for a modest charge per gigabyte,” he said. “If those people have to pay $5 for a large request, they’ll often go away.”

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