Laws offer proposed reforms to open records act

OLYMPIA — A legislative committee learned Tuesday the latest attempt to reform the state’s Public Records Act might result in a new fee for digital records, better record keeping technology for government agencies and an online portal where many public documents can easily be found.

There also might be tweaks in the rules to help cities, counties and special districts deal with serial requesters whose constant demands can impede processing and handling of other records requests, as well as day-to-day operations of the agency.

“I believe the Public Records Act can be made more efficient, more cost effective and more responsive,” Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, told the House Local Government Committee during a 75-minute work session on the law.

She and Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, are drafting legislation incorporating changes and said as many as three bills could be introduced next week, at the earliest.

They will be the product of what McBride described as an “epic series of stakeholder meetings” the past seven months involving 42 people representing cities, counties, media outlets, open government organizations and commercial firms that routinely request records.

That group spent hundreds of hours in search of common ground on updating Washington’s sacred doctrine of open government to reflect changes in technology and the public’s increased appetite for public records. Requests rose by 36 percent between 2011 and 2016, according to a report by the State Auditor’s Office.

“We believe the bill you will soon see goes a long way toward addressing some of the major concerns people have,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

In its report, the state auditor focused on how complying with the law strains the budgets and operations of cities, counties and special districts. It sent surveys to 2,363 government entities and 923 responded in some fashion, including Snohomish County and cities of Everett, Edmonds, Lake Stevens, Monroe, Snohomish and Gold Bar.

Based on responses, government agencies collectively spent $61 million in one year to respond to 285,180 records requests. The single-largest expense was for staff to locate and prepare each public record for release.

McBride and Nealey said they are still hammering out the final details of their bills. They told the committee some of the elements include:

Establishing a new charge for producing digital records. Agencies may be allowed to set a rate if they carry out a public process to adopt it, Nealey said. Or the bill may simply use the schedule used by the city of Seattle. Its fees are 2 cents for up to a gigabyte of data and 9 cents per GB after that, according to a city website. There’s also a charge of 41 cents per minute of staff time to attach records to a response and if the information is put on a disc it costs $1 per disc.

Improving the responsiveness of agencies by requiring employees to undergo additional training, encouraging more records to be routinely posted online and providing agencies money to upgrade their record-keeping technology.

Creation of an online portal for the public to easily access records of cities, counties, school districts and the state. McBride said they’d like to secure funding in the next state budget to study how Utah set up its portal and whether it could be replicated in some fashion in Washington.

Establishing an alternative means to litigation for resolving disputes between requesters and government entities. One concept is creating public records courts that would operate like a small claims court, McBride said.

Rowland Thompson of the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, who took part in the months of meetings, expressed support for a “moderate” charge for electronic records but said the alternate dispute resolution proposal would probably not “see the light of day” in this session.

Cliff Webster, a lobbyist for the Consumer Data Industry Association, said he didn’t hold out much hope when the group began meeting. He does now.

“Frankly, when this process started I was a skeptic,” he said. “I’m pleased to see the proposals you’ve put forward.”

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

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