Lawmakers opt to pursue study of public records requests

OLYMPIA — Cities, counties and school districts won’t be getting the changes to the Public Records Act they asked lawmakers to make this session.

This week it became clear that a House bill allowing local governments to limit the time spent processing public record requests and to prioritize handling of those requests would not be voted on.

Now the bill’s author and its supporters are hoping lawmakers will pay for a study of the effect of key provisions of the waylaid legislation, House Bill 2576, on use of the state’s chief law for insuring public access to information about government.

The state House of Representatives approved a proposed budget Thursday containing $250,000 for an analysis to be done by the end of 2017.

“This will be comprehensive,” said Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, who sponsored House Bill 2576. “We want to make sure there is enough time so everyone who needs to talk about public records, the pros, the cons, what’s working, what’s not, has an opportunity to voice their opinions.”

The Senate, however, did not fund a similar study in the budget it adopted Friday.

“We’ll do what we can,” McBride said. “It’s not a big ask. “There are abuses. It is a real problem.”

Backers of the original bill said they think the report will show that reforms could help local governments deal with the increasing volume and heft of public records requests – especially from abusers of the law, whose demands for huge numbers of documents can tax the resources of smaller local governments.

“I’m very disappointed the bill didn’t come to the floor. We just very, very desperately need some reform,” said Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton.

The House bill targeted the “vengeful” requests that are costing taxpayers a lot of money because of the resources required to handle them, he said.

“It’s an absolute injustice,” he said.

But open government advocates, including the Allied Daily Newspaper of which The Herald is a member, opposed the legislation as an excessive and unnecessary response to a handful of problem requesters.

Some are concerned the proposed study is too narrowly focused on the concerns of government and not requesters.

“There is relief for many that HB 2576 is dead but unless they start including the requester community in these conversations from the start, we are likely to continue to see these adversarial fights,” said Jason Mercier, a board member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

The House budget earmarks $250,000 for the William D. Ruckelshaus Center to consider the potential effects of letting local governments limit how much time its staff spends responding to public records requests each month. That was a key provision in the House bill.

The study also would examine the impact of allowing requests to be prioritized and consider options for local governments to recoup more of their costs.

And the study would look at the feasibility of creating a Public Records Commission to resolve disputes between those seeking documents and public agencies. That, too, was a provision in the bill,

In the meantime, because the Senate did not include money for such a study in the budget they adopted, it will be a matter for negotiation between the chambers in the remaining days of the session.

“I am hopeful we can keep this dialogue going,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, who supported reform legislation while serving in the House. “Local governments feel overwhelmed. We have to find a way to create a collaborative process where requesters and those receiving requests can resolve disputes in a constructive way.”

Government officials have complained about hefty civil penalties awarded in public records cases, giving them little option but to settle records disputes with checkbooks. Those requesting records have complained just as loudly about many in government who seem reluctant to enforce the public records law, including use of existing criminal statutes to sanction public employees who deliberately destroy documents, or otherwise thwart lawful access.

Meanwhile, the State Auditor’s Office already is gathering detailed information on how many requests local governments receive and how much they spent dealing with them.

In 2015, lawmakers requested auditors try to quantify what it takes for the 2,529 state and local agencies subject to the Public Records Act to comply with the law. Results of this analysis are expected in August.

When completed, the report will be filled with facts and figures. But auditors are not intending to make specific recommendations on how agencies should handle requests or what price they charge for records.

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

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