State lawmakers try to limit overbroad public records requests

OLYMPIA — A bill that would allow local agencies to limit time spent responding to public records requests and charge certain requesters was met with wide support from representatives of cities and counties but faced criticism from open-government and media advocates at a hearing Thursday.

A swath of people representing cities, ports, fire and police departments, school districts and other local agencies all shared horror stories of enormous public records requests that handcuffed them from performing the essential functions of their agencies.

Public records requests take up 80 percent of tax revenue for the Port of Kingston, commissioner Walt Elliott testified, and the requests come essentially from two people.

“Such requests are abuses of the system that directly harm the ability of local governments to get things done,” said Stacy Goodman, president of the Issaquah City Council.

House Bill 2576 would let agencies restrict responding to public records requests if it makes certain records publicly available such as three years of past budgets. It would also create a Public Records Commission to help resolve disputes between people who request records and the agencies.

The proposal has bipartisan sponsorship and would allow agencies to charge for public records if the request is coming from a ‘commercial entity’ that intends to sell or resell the records for a profit. The bill singles out data miners as an example. Its primary sponsor is Democratic Rep. Joan McBride of Kirkland.

Some who testified questioned the bill’s ability to limit bad actors.

After the hearing, Rowland Thompson, executive director of the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, said the bill makes it “far more onerous for the average person to request a record.”

“This just sweeps everybody into the same bin,” he said.

Thompson estimated the number of “vexatious requesters,” is in double digits in Washington, and there should be a law specifically addressing them to solve the issues of the local agencies.

Katherine George, an attorney that specializes in obtaining public records, testified the Public Disclosure Commission is not necessary, partially because mediation is already used to resolve disputes between agencies and people who request public records.

The bill would harm the “99 percent of requesters” by allowing the slowest disclosure when “demand for information is highest,” she said at the hearing. George is also board member of the Washington Coalition on Open Government.

The coalition’s communications director Juli Bunting said they would prefer a legislative compromise that disallows a person from requesting all or “substantially all” of an agency’s records.

For Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson the issue is of high importance, because paying staff to handle overbroad public records requests means less staff is available for other city functions.

“Do I want more staff chasing around frivolous or vindictive records requests or do I want to hire more police officers and firefighters for my community?” he testified.

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