Editorial: Fighting for truth, justice and public records

By The Herald Editorial Board

Quick quiz: A Vexatious Requester is:

A) A new Marvel Comics supervillain with a movie coming out this summer;

B) A guy or gal who can’t take a hint at the local pick-up bar; or

C) The label recently given to some seeking public records by lawmakers and others who are hoping to resolve the increasing costs for state and local agencies in responding to public records requests.

Most cities, counties, state agencies and others can tell stories about their own vexatious requesters — though they probably use a different name for them — those who make overly broad or unreasonable requests for public records, sometimes in the hope that an agency’s inability to respond to the request in a timely fashion will result in a lucrative fine or settlement. One request in 2014 to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office sought all its records dating back to 1776.

But whether a requester is being vexatious or is earnestly seeking public records — a right that has been guaranteed by the state’s Public Records Act since 1972 — governments and public agencies have seen increasing costs in meeting the requirements of the act.

A study last year by the state Auditor’s Office estimated that at least $60 million annually was spent by local and state government agencies in responding to more than 285,000 requests for public records. The report also found that less than 1 percent of the costs of fulfilling the requests were recouped by the offices involved.

Following the report by the auditor’s office and several meetings among lawmakers and other public records stakeholders, two bills have been proposed in the state House that would make reforms to the Public Records Act.

HB 1595 would set up a fee schedule that would clarify charges for specific types of electronic and other records; allow for a service charge for more complex requests; consider as invalid requests that seek all or substantially all of an agencies records; and block automated “bot” requests for public records that interfere with an agencies’ duties.

HB 1594 would require the state attorney general’s office to establish a program to advise local governments on best practices for managing public records requests; require the agency to offer mediation to clarify or resolve disagreements over a request; fund a study regarding a statewide internet portal for public records; and authorize a $1 surcharge on county recorded documents to fund a grant program for training agency employees on records management.

Open government advocates, including Toby Nixon of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, and Rowland Thompson, a lobbyist with Allied Daily Newspapers, expressed general support for an update to the records act during a recent House committee meeting, but pointed to problems with portions of the bills, specifically the fee schedule and the mediation requirement.

The fee schedule, Nixon told lawmakers and others in emails about the proposed bills, doesn’t account for potential abuse by agencies that might pile on documents that weren’t requested or divide records into multiple “pages” to drive up the cost to the requester.

Likewise, requiring mediation could be a cost that requesters would be unable to afford.

Some changes to fees may be a reasonable, but lawmakers need to keep in mind that these records already belong to the public and should be available to them at their request with as little barrier as is possible.

What should survive in the legislation, however, is investigation of a statewide online public records portal that could easily fulfill most requests for public documents, and training and investment in technologies that help local governments store and manage documents for quick and easy retrieval.

Lawmakers hoping to deal a blow to the Vexatious Requester and preserve the very real American rights to truth, justice and public records should put on their superhero tights and advance both bills to the House floor by Friday so they remain alive for further consideration and possible amendments this session.

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