Report of little help to lawmakers on record request issues

OLYMPIA —There’s little dispute the rising number of requests for public records are stressing resources of cities, counties and school districts in ways no one imagined when the Public Records Act was born.

But there continues to be no agreement on what state lawmakers can and should do about it.

That’s why they requested the state Auditor’s Office conduct a performance audit of how local governments wrestle with the increasing number and complexity of requests. Lawmakers sought a better idea of the financial toll and operational burdens of complying with the law.

They wanted to know if, as local government leaders have told them, the cost of carrying out this law is interfering with other essential government services. If so, they hoped to get a suite of potential solutions.

But a Seattle lawmaker who led the push to involve the auditor said the final product released last month isn’t going to help the Legislature much at all because it doesn’t validate — or invalidate — the anecdotal claims of local governments.

“I am royally disappointed in this report,” said state Rep. Gerry Pollett, D-Seattle, following a nearly two-hour legislative hearing Sept. 14. “It didn’t do any of the things we asked them to do.”

That hearing held by the Joint Legislative Audit Review Committee marked the first public review of the report’s findings. The committee made up of House and Senate members from both political parties took no action.

For the report, the Auditor’s Office sent surveys to 2,363 government entities. A total of 923 responded in some fashion, including 32 counties, 165 cities, 115 school districts and 80 state agencies. Snohomish County took part as did the cities of Everett, Edmonds, Lake Stevens, Monroe, Snohomish and Gold Bar.

Of the total, 541 survey respondents reported spending nearly $61 million to respond to 285,180 records requests in the most recent year. Overall, requests have risen by 36 percent since 2011, the report found.

Cities and towns accounted for $16.8 million of the most recent year expenses, and 115,000 of the requests. Counties reported $11.2 million to handle 64,319 requests. Snohomish County handled 7,648 requests, ninth highest in the survey, at a cost of $1.22 million.

School districts that responded recorded $2.9 million in costs on 2,541 requests.

The study sought expense information dating back to 2011. It showed cost can vary greatly from year-to-year for a government entity.

Gold Bar, for example, estimated its current year costs will be $13,021. But this town of roughly 2,100 people reported costs of $60,223 in 2015 and $103,871 in 2012. That year City Councilmembers pondered disincorporation, blaming legal costs tied to public records-related requests with nearly bankrupting Gold Bar.

Overall, the single largest expense cited by those surveyed was for staff to locate and prepare each public record for release. It accounted for 98 percent of the costs, auditors told the committee.

Almost all of those labor costs are borne by the public agency because the law, as now written, does not allow a person making a request to be charged for the time and costs incurred in the process. Agencies recovered only $350,000 of that $61 million in expenses, they said.

Pollett criticized the report for not checking the numbers in order to validate the central assertion that the time and expense of responding to requests hindered other essential government services.

It should have delved deeper into what different cities, counties and school districts actually charge for paper and electronic records and pay out for staff to pull together and deliver them, he said. Then auditors should have weighed in on whether a revised fee structure is needed.

Pollett also said he expected the report to evaluate available technologies for managing public records and make recommendations on what local governments and the state can do to deploy the best ones.

While the report doesn’t detail a list of actions for governments to take, it does offer a review of how other states handle the growing demand for public records. And it does give lawmakers a firmer view of the budget impact to municipal governments, large and small

The purpose of the report is to provide better data on the quantity of records requests and to put a price tag on time spent fulfilling them, senior performance auditor Sohara Monaghan told the committee.

“Transparency in government does not come without a cost,” she said.

Representatives of cities and counties responded more positively.

“This is a stack of data to help formulate a legislative conversation,” said Jennifer Ziegler, policy consultant for the Washington State Association of Counties. “We’re looking for more tools to help us respond to the challenge.”

Candice Bock, of the Association of Washington Cities, said the report points out the need for ongoing data collection by communities and a dialogue with the state on investing in tools to deal with the request.

With records management becoming more of a focus for cities, cities will look to the state for financial help in upgrading their technology, she said. And city leaders also want to talk about better ways to recover costs and resolve disputes with records requesters, she said.

“This was an excellent start,” she said.

Earlier this year, with the report under way, lawmakers debated but did not pass a bill to let local governments limit how much time employees spend processing requests and to prioritize the order in which requests are handled.

Lawmakers pulled together a 42-member work group to examine issues of cost recovery, litigation and the possibility of amending the law. The goal is to draft a bill for lawmakers to consider in the 2017 session.

The work group is expected to meet again in early October.

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

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