Public records remain a challenge for lawmakers

Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, and Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, are leading the effort to come up with solutions to the problem of large demands for public records.

Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, and Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, are leading the effort to come up with solutions to the problem of large demands for public records.

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers continued their search Tuesday for ways to help cities, counties, school districts and other government agencies deal with increasing demands for large volumes of public records, some of those from people whose motives they question.

Lawmakers earlier this year refused to pass a bill that would have let local governments limit how much time employees spend processing requests and to prioritize the order in which they are handled.

But they agreed to keep the conversation going. Tuesday’s work session by the House State Government Committee was intended to flush out ideas for potential consideration in the 2017 legislative session.

“We’ve struggled with this for a number of years,” said Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, the committee chairman. “We keep looking for a way to crack this nut. And we’ll keep looking.”

Government agencies at all levels are wrestling with the evolving challenges posed by complying with the Public Records Act, a law created by a 1972 initiative.

Demands for records, from traffic accident reports to emails to texts to police videos, are on the rise. Modern technology is making it possible for some to submit hordes of requests automatically through a mode known as a bot request.

Retrieving the burgeoning number of records can consume large amounts of time for workers, and those labor costs are borne by the public agency. That tab can add up, especially quickly for smaller cities, school districts and special districts because the law allows agencies to charge only 15 cents a page for paper copies or the price of a CD or thumb drive if that is how the material is transferred. If records are emailed, then there’s no payment.

It isn’t clear exactly how much compliance costs. The state auditor may come up with an answer as it is studying the demands the public records law is putting on more than 2,500 state and local agencies. Its report is due out later this summer.

In Snohomish County, employees are spending twice as much time processing public records requests compared to five years ago. Last year the County Council created a management-level position to oversee the processing of requests countywide.

In Olympia on Tuesday, representatives for cities and counties said they hope lawmakers will consider updating the law to allow them to recoup more of the cost of workers’ time identifying, producing and delivering the records. They also asked them to consider a ban on bot requests and to provide governments with additional powers to deal with vexatious requesters.

“We don’t think that’s the right solution,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and a Kirkland City Councilman.

He suggested lawmakers instead explore creation of a statewide service for tracking and producing records for government bodies at all levels. He cited the example of Utah which operates a single website through which requests for records can be submitted for cities, counties, schools, transit districts and state agencies.

Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers, said the law provides legal recourse for dealing with difficult requesters but suggested creating an alternate means of resolving dispute is worth considering.

Charging for huge data files could be in order, too, if lawmakers can figure out a fair price, he said. Lawmakers have tried, and failed, to come up with a price per megabyte the past couple years.

Jennifer Ziegler, representing the Washington State Association of Counties, and Candice Bock of the Association of Washington Cities, both expressed support for an alternate dispute resolution mechanism and creation of a single portal for requesting records.

“Hopefully we can come to some consensus around these issues,” Bock said.

Meanwhile, two lawmakers are spearheading an effort to get stakeholders — including those at Tuesday’s meeting — to come up with potential solutions before the end of the year.

Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, and Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, authors of this year’s unsuccessful reform bill, have hosted meetings in Bellevue and Kirkland at which all the same issues are being discussed.

“We’re closer,” McBride said of the search for common ground. “The goal is to come up with some legislation that we all feel can address issues and concerns of requesters and agencies.”

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

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