Public records requests take lots of time, often end up costly

  • By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
  • Monday, May 30, 2016 9:03pm
  • Local News

EVERETT — Snohomish County employees are spending twice as much time processing public records requests compared to five years ago.

Not only are the requests consuming more work hours, they’re also a factor in hefty legal payouts to settle mishandled requests, government officials say.

The County Council responded last fall by creating a management-level position to oversee records requests countywide.

“It’s becoming a very complex situation and one that requires a lot of attention,” county tech director Trever Esko said.

The new public records officer will report to Esko. Until the council endorsed the new position, serving as the public records officer was part of the county tech director’s job description.

The new manager will help coordinate the work of records specialists already fielding requests in various county departments.

Some of the more common requesters of information from the county include attorneys, insurance companies, media outlets, activists and county employees.

While the number of people and businesses asking for documents has remained fairly steady, some of the requests seek massive amounts of information or require time-consuming searches.

In 2011, the county fielded 8,701 requests and slightly more than the 8,536 last year, Esko said. The time staff spent processing those records, however, jumped from 7,100 hours to 14,200 hours during that time. Except in 2013, the workload increased each year.

“There are a couple of lawyers and a couple of private citizens that have driven a lot of activity,” he said.

While insurance companies make numerous requests for accident reports, Esko described those as relatively simple and quick to fulfill.

At times, the county has struggled to address automated, bot-generated requests, some demanding more records than a real, living person could read in a lifetime.

Litigation tied to the Oso landslide also has generated complicated, time-consuming queries.

But it’s the jail that has produced some of the costliest records mistakes of late.

In less than two years, the county has made three legal payouts totalling nearly $1 million over allegations of mishandled jail records.

The county in April agreed to pay $250,000 to a family who sued over being provided incomplete video footage related to a woman’s suicide at the county lockup.

Last year, the county paid corrections deputy Charles Carrell $600,000 to settle a lawsuit over failing to properly fulfill his records request seeking five years of a jail co-worker’s emails.

In 2014, the family of Michael Saffioti, a 22-year-old who died in the jail, reached a $95,000 settlement over jail staff failing to disclose video footage from the morning of his death. The family’s attorneys initially were told the video didn’t exist.

The new records officer will need to draw on knowledge of the state’s Public Records Act more than computer expertise. Hiring for that position is ongoing. Esko hopes to have someone in place by the end of June.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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