Kilmer sponsors public records request bill

State Senator Derek Kilmer (D-Gig Harbor) has signed on as the prime sponsor for SB 5022, which would nail down a one-year statute of limitations for legal actions against government agencies allegedly non-complient with public records requests.

“This is one area where, simply by clarifying the law, we can maintain access to government information, but prevent lawsuits that add expense,” said Kilmer in a recent phone interview.

The bill would give the requester up to one year “from the date that an agency claims an exemption, provides the records responsive to a request, or indicates that there are no responsive records, whichever occurs last,” to take legal action against an agency he or she believe to be non-complient.

Attorney General Rob McKenna requested the bill, as well as a companion bill in the state’s house of representatives.

“This bill should have pretty strong bi-partisan support,” Kilmer said. “It’s good common sense.”

So far, Kilmer’s bill, and a companion bill in the House, have been supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

Besides Kilmer, the Senate’s version of the bill has been co-signed by Sen. Debbie Regala (D-Tacoma), the Majority Caucus Vice Chair and Sen. Cheryl Pflug (R-Maple Valley) the Republican Deputy Leader.

In the House, the prime sponsor is Rep. Deb Eddy, the Majority Caucus Vice Chair. And the House version of the bill also has bi-partisan co-sponsorship.

The bill will come during a session when the Association of Washington Cities and the Washington State Association of Counties are lobbying to change laws about public records requests.

Both lobbying groups have said that they’re trying to prevent individuals from profiting by making complicated records requests and suing when government agencies 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.

“They’re routinely being used as a form of harassment and/or negotiation,” Port Orchard’s Mayor, Lary Coppola. “For example, an attorney will say, ‘if you bend the rules for my client on this land use matter, we’ll drop this records request.’ ”

“Of course, we can’t do that, and we have to comply no matter how much it costs.”

And this often happens, says 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.”

Government agencies can also get bogged down by records requests, even if blackmail isn’t a motive.

“Some cities get serial public records requests often from the same people asking for volumes and volumes of information,” Steve Gorcester the Director of State and Federal Relations for the Association of Washington Cities. “The association and the member cities are all for open government, but there’s huge cost exposure for responding to these that’s being borne by the rest of the citizens.”

Kilmer’s bill was prefiled for introduction on Dec. 28, and it’s scheduled for public hearing in the Senate Committee on Government Operations and Tribal Relations and Elections at 10:00 a.m. on Jan. 13, three days after the legislative session officially begins.

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