County tightening rules for getting public records

Frank Wolfe

More than 500 requests made so far in 2017

By Amy Nile

anile@chinookobserver.com

SOUTH BEND — It’s a matter of public record. But, just how the people can get their hands on government documents is changing.

Pacific County is updating its rules for public records to keep up with changes to state law that take effect on July 23.

People can weigh in before the three-member County Commission votes on the proposed policy. A public hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. on July 25 at the courthouse annex in South Bend, 1216 W. Robert Bush Dr.

The coming changes mean higher fees, more hurdles and fewer choices for those who ask for records. They give public agencies more options to respond but require better tracking of requests and more training for officials.

With advances in technology making more information available and requests piling up on public servants’ desks across the state, lawmakers in Olympia this year approved changes to Washington’s Public Records Act. Now that Gov. Jay Inslee has signed House bills 1594 and 1595 signed into law, the county has to update its policy to reflect new records requirements, Commissioner Frank Wolfe said.

The changes allow Washington’s public agencies to start charging for electronic records and customized access to information.

“However, the Legislature did not let us charge what it really costs us,” Wolfe said.

Paper copies usually cost requesters up to 15 cents a page. They can get electronic documents without fees.

If the county’s proposed public records policy is approved, it could charge for paper, use of copying equipment, postage, shipping supplies, sending electronic records, digital production, file transfers, cloud storage, processing services and use of required devices. Records could also be sent to a copying service at the requester’s expense.

“It isn’t as simple as a lot of people think,” Wolfe said. “Some of these requests are very expensive and that money comes out of the same public coffers, as everything else.”

The state changed the law to require agencies that spend more than $100,000 a year on records-related legal and staff costs to track requests and report certain information to the Legislature. Tracking is voluntary for others.

Although it’s hard to determine exactly how much filling requests and resolving records disputes costs the county, it is getting ready to meet requirements for the above $100,000 threshold, Financial Manager Paul Plakinger said.

A 2016 report by the state Auditor’s Office showed public agencies in Washington spent more than $60 million in the past year, fulfilling 114,000 requests. From 2011 to 2016, the requests increased statewide by 36 percent.

So far this year, the county has handled 513 records requests. Staff filled 828 in 2016 and 1,000 in 2015.

The county has one employee who spends 36 hours a week handling requests. Another staffer works at least four hours a week on records.

Every county office has an employee who spends a “significant amount of time” on requests, Prosecutor Mark McClain said.

The new rules require training for public records officers to include retention, production, and disclosure of electronic documents, as well as updating and improving technology information systems. The state is offering some grants and programs for local governments to offset the expense through at least 2020.

Following the law for records costs the county a considerable amount of time and money, but McClain said, it has so far not had to pay hefty settlements for related lawsuits.

“Since no county can afford or get coverage for these suits, that should speak volumes,” he said. “It’s an important act, but the legal cost will ultimately cost counties significantly.”

The statewide changes also allow agencies to deny requests for “all records” that are not related to a particular topic.

Wolfe said the county received a request several years ago for all of its records since “the birth of Christ.”

“There’s no conceivable reason someone would need that,” he said. “There’s a difference between opening these documents up to daylight and using these statutes to bring the county to its knees.”

The proposed policy would require requests to be made for “identifiable records.” That means requesters would need to provide at least enough information for county staff to be able to figure out what they’re looking for, Wolfe said.

The updated state law allows the county and other agencies to reject computer-generated “bot requests” when multiples are made from the same source within 24 hours. The county also no longer wants to accept requests made over the phone or by fax.

The commissioners are expected to decide on the proposed changes after hearing public comments. The updated policy is expected to take effect on Aug. 1.

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