Lewis County officials are supporting a bill that would cut down on the time spent fulfilling expansive public records requests and aid them in recouping money spent doing so.
New legislation, SB 5088 and HB 1300, would give municipalities and government agencies the option to charge labor costs for personnel after five hours in a given month have been dedicated to fulfilling a person’s request for public documents. If the requester doesn’t want to pay, the agency will complete the work within the allotted five hours the next month.
Local lawmaker Sen. Dan Swecker is cosponsoring the bill.
“We keep hearing from agencies how public records requests have become more onerous,” the Rochester Republican said. “People have learned how to play the game. They’re more interested in the fines and attorney fees.”
Swecker said some requesters try to trap municipalities, don’t pick up their documents after the work has been completed, or ask to examine the documents in person to avoid paying the copying costs.
“Our purpose is to make sure the people with legitimate needs are serviced,” he added.
Lewis County Commissioner Ron Averill, a Centralia Republican, called the proposal a good idea.
“It should cut down on fishing expeditions,” Averill said. “It would give (requesters) cause to revise their disclosure. If it does its job, you won’t get those unreasonable requests.”
County officials have complained of outlandish requests that were monopolizing their time and energy. They pointed to a recent request by Olympia journalist Terrence Knight, former publisher of The Sitting Duck, as a prime example of why change was needed.
Knight filed a public disclosure request looking for “all notes, memos, letters and communications between county officials and officials of the Lewis County Fair between 8-10-07 and 6-1-10.” More than 10 million documents met that criteria.
Knight is looking into whether there was any collusion between Lewis County and the security company, Starplex Corporation, that was hired to do crowd control at the 2007 Southwest Washington Fair. The county was vindicated in a summary judgement case with Knight, who was working as a journalist, after he sued, claiming he was man-handled and booted from the fair by security. Knight said it all stemmed from an argument with a fair official when he asked to interview rock musician Johnny Rivers after his concert.
Knight has since altered his request, but county officials still believe the legislation or something like it needs to be put in place.
“I understand the need to make all documents available,” Averill said. “But on the other hand, I have to conduct a business. It’s necessary to find a balance.”
Tim Ford, the public records ombudsmen for Attorney General Rob McKenna, said the attorney general’s office has not taken a stance on the legislation.
Ford said earlier this month that the economic climate may be right for adjustments to public records laws, but didn’t know if legislation would fare better this year than in years past. Bills brought before the Legislature for the past couple years have failed to gain support.
Marqise Allen: (360) 807-8237