Public records policy under scrutiny

The City of Port Orchard spends more than $100,000 per year for software and staff to comply with public records requests.

But that number could drop significantly if the Association of Washington Cities and Washington Counties successfully lobby the state legislature to change public records request laws.

Port Orchard’s Mayor Lary Coppola supports the idea.

“Public records requests have gotten completely out of control,” he said in a recent interview.

Port Orchard received 58 records requests between Jan. 1 2010 and November 12 of the same year.

The requests covered an eclectic range of topics.

Paul R. Clifton, of Bremerton, asked: “Where or why did Old Clifton Road get its name?”

After about a month, the city responded to the request by saying that they don’t know.

“I still haven’t found out why they named it that,” said Clifton in a phone interview. “I’m still looking.”

Bryan Petro had better success with a request for the city council’s meeting minutes from 1890, 1891, 1892 and 1893 for a project he’s working on about the history of Kitsap County.

“The city clerk was really helpful,” said Petro. “She told me where to go to look up the archives in Bellevue.”

But not all of the public records requests were so easy to comply with.

Port Orchard spent several thousand dollars last year on equipment to fill one of the records requests, said Coppola.

And the city could be sued if they fail to comply.

If a government agency fails to comply within a “reasonable amount of time” to a document request, then the requester can get restitution of up to $100 per day plus legal fees.

People can exploit this loophole by requesting obscure documents and then suing agencies that fail to produce them, said Joe Beavers, the Mayor of Goldbar.

“You deny my building permit, I bankrupt your city,” he said. “You tag my trailer, I bankrupt your city. You don’t approve my non-code water system, I bankrupt your city.”

“Whatever the Public Records Act was supposed to have been, this is what it has become.”

And, even if the requester doesn't mean to harm the city, he or she can still do so inadvertently, said Brian Enslow, policy director for the Washington State Association of Counties.

“I think that, in some cases, the value to the tax payer is being stripped by the cost,” he said. “Kitsap County has had hundreds of requests, and that’s led to thousands of hours of work.”

The Association of Washington Cities and the Washington State Association of Counties are looking to change that law, so that document requesters would pay some expenses associated with long and drawn out searches.

“If the production of records for one requester in a calendar month exceeds five person hours, the public agency may require the requester to pay the personnel costs for the request during the month to complete the search and copying tasks,” according to their current bill request to the code reviser’s office. “If the requester does not wish to pay for the search costs, the agency shall complete the request at a rate of five hours per month.”

And according to the current version of the bill, the requester must pay the fee before the records are disclosed, and the public agency may ask for up to a ten percent as a deposit before the search.

The Washington State Association of Counties would also like to add a section to the law requiring the document requester to confer with the government agency before taking the agency to court.

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