Lawmakers hear pleas for public records relief

OLYMPIA – Debate continued Monday on what cities and counties can do when they question the motive behind public records demands requiring hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars to deliver.

And a Snohomish County official urged members of a legislative committee to explore avenues of relief, citing the case of one resident who she said uses the Public Records Act as a “weapon of retaliation and a weapon of harassment.”

This resident has filed 302 requests since Jan. 1, 2013, including five on Monday, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Sara Di Vittorio told members of the House Local Government Committee.

More than 1,600 hours of labor have gone into responding to those requests, with half those hours spent fulfilling ones that were not picked up, she said.

“We need help. We don’t have the resources in the act to protect our employees,” she said, adding she expects another batch of requests once the person learns of her testimony.

Problems with public record disclosures have emerged as a major concern of local governments in recent years. Lawsuits stemming from failure to disclose records, or to do so in a timely manner, resulted in significant fines against some entities.

Earlier this month Snohomish County agreed to pay $575,000 to settle a lawsuit in which the county was accused of failing to respond to several records requests “in a timely manner.” The suit was brought by activists promoting environmental causes in farming areas who had filed more than 275 requests. Gold Bar even pondered bankruptcy because of a large legal tab spawned from its handling of requests.

A 2013 analysis by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center tried to determine the extent of reports that abuses of the law that cost cities, counties, and school districts bundles of money.

Their findings were inconclusive.

Monday’s work session, like hearings on the same subject conducted by the panel in the past two years, found a gulf between agencies and those opposed to revising the law.

On one side, the leader of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and an attorney for daily and weekly newspapers urged lawmakers to not tinker with the Public Records Act and give agencies more discretion to turn down requests.

Toby Nixon, president of the coalition, said tools exist to help agencies handle requests faster and cheaper, such as posting records online and indexing records in order to access them faster.

Agency officials can request clarification to narrow broad demands and provide records in installments to avoid wasted labor, he said.

“The Legislature should demand they do that before infringing upon people’s civil rights,” he said.

Bruce Johnson, who represents Allied Daily Newspapers, of which The Herald is a member, said a 3-month-old law requiring employees of cities, counties and special districts to undergo training in public records law may also help resolve issues. He suggested waiting a few years to find out before pursuing any changes.

On the other side, those working for cities and counties argued that the 1972 law needs updating to provide better tools for dealing with serial requesters and those using the statute to amass data for sale.

They asked for clearer language on when requests can be deemed harassment and thus rejected, and an ability to recoup costs from record-seekers who can afford it, such as from out-of-state commercial data miners.

“We implore you to act on this,” said Brian Enslow of the Washington State Association of Counties.

But Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, chairman of the House Local Government Committee, said not to expect much in the 2015 session.

“There are probably some small steps we can take,” he said afterwards. “But as far as a great big bill to do something, probably not.”

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

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