In the last quarter of the year, the City of Ilwaco’s public records more than doubled, costing the city 17 percent of their budget.”
• Within nine months (January to September 2015) the City of Ilwaco received 13 records requests. The city had an average of 1.4 requests a month and a response time average of 5 days to fulfill the request.
• During the last quarter of the year (October to December 2015) the city received 11 requests, The city’s average more than doubled with 3.6 requests a month and a response took for times longer with a 20.5-day average to fulfill the request.
By Katheryn Houghton
ILWACO — To get a handle on a sudden increase in public records requests, the City of Ilwaco has created new regulations that could delay citizens’ access to city documents.
The city’s new rule limits staff time processing public records requests to 22 hours a month and went into effect this week. The council unanimously passed the amendment on Jan. 11 after one family caused the city’s average number of monthly records requests to more than double.
Ilwaco Mayor Mike Cassinelli said the spike in requests cost Ilwaco too much time and money.
“This just protects the city from someone using public records requests as a tool of harassment,” Cassinelli said.
He said the city didn’t look for other solutions to reduce staff effort toward public requests before making the amendment. City hall is now looking at switching to a new server that could save staff time, Cassinelli said.
Throughout 2015, the city received 24 public records requests — 11 during the final three months of the year, according to the city’s records logs.
According city documents, processing public request since October cost Ilwaco $6,000. The city didn’t document the amount of money spent processing public records before the increase.
At least three Washington cities have created similar amendments and two led to lengthy legal battles.
In Forbes v. the City of Gold Bar, the Washington Court of Appeals recognized there are situations when a city needs additional time to fulfill a request.
According to court documents, Susan Forbes accused the city of failing to respond to her public records requests.
In 2010 Gold Bar spent roughly $70,000 processing requests, according to court documents. Based on a review of the city’s resources, city officials limited staff time fulfilling requests to 12 hours a month.
The court ruled Gold Bar’s response was, “reasonable in light of the difficulty the city had in retrieving the information and the efforts it expended.”
In Zink v. Mesa, the State Supreme Court ruled the city of Mesa violated Washington’s Public Records Act when it limited the amount of time responding to public records requests to one hour a week.
Mesa had a population of fewer than 500 people and one part-time city employee. According to court documents, from 2002 to 2005, Donna Zink and her husband filed between 68 and 172 requests.
The court decided Mesa discriminated against Zink since the limit was created in response to her requests. President of Washington Coalition for Open Government Toby Nixon said Washington is waiting on a third case to test the previous rulings.
Nixon is a Kirkland councilman. He said Kirkland set a limit on how much of its annual budget would go toward records requests. He said they felt confident in the regulation because it was based on the average amount of money Kirkland spent processing requests over two years.
“It’s tricky because a city needs to protect itself, but regulations can delay producing records,” Nixon said. “There’s especially a risk if this happens in response to a city beef.”
Ryan Crater and his wife Natasha filed six of the 11 records requests the city received since October. Many of the requests were for city documents. Some were broader, like a request for all of the mayor’s emails from 2014 to 2015 tied to public business.
Crater said they filed the requests to discover what the city does behind closed doors. He said he also wanted to learn more about Ilwaco before running for city council — a position is not up for reelection until 2017.
“If it takes a thousand PDRs to get the information I need for my campaign and to understand how the city operates, then so be it,” Crater wrote in an email to the city council and Chinook Observer.
During the 2015 election, Crater ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign under the banner of holding accountable a mayor he said had free-rein over the city.
Crater worked as the city planner until Cassinelli canceled the contract with the Columbia River Estuary Study Taskforce — which removed Crater’s position — without consulting the council.
Crater said he doesn’t intend to sue the city, but plans to take legal action in response to, “personal attacks.” He said his experience is an example of how the city operates unchecked.
“The public records issue is just one aspect to how this city handles stuff,” Crater said.