Two new public records laws will come into effect on Sunday, and Lewis County is working on a resolution that would create a new payment structure for those requesting information.
House Bills 1594 and 1595 were signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee on May 16.
HB 1594 will improve the administration of public records requests, while HB 1595 lays out costs for agencies that produce electronic copies associated with requests.
Paulette Young, the county’s risk manager, told the commissioners on Tuesday that staff is looking into various options on how to bill those requesters. She said the charges will not begin immediately after the law goes into effect because the county wants to ensure a streamlined and efficient process is put in place first.
GovQA, which helps local governments with public records requests, will feature options to track the amount of time individuals in charge of requests spend compiling the information. They offer several options, which could cost the county up to $10,500 during the first year.
“We are not to the decision making process yet,” Young said. “My initial gut reaction to that is it is a little high.”
County employees working on public records requests are already encouraged to keep track of their time, Young said, which will help with the new reporting requirements.
She did not want to present a resolution prematurely, so the Board of Lewis County Commissioners will continue to discuss various options it can utilize.
The money generated from requesters will not cover the county’s entire cost for public records, but will help offset it.
Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, who co-sponsored the bills, said in a statement the “bills will help to reduce costly vexatious requests while improving public access to our state and local public records.”
Under House Bill 1595, agencies can charge a fee of 10 cents per page scanned into an electronic format, 5 cents for every four electronic attachments uploaded to an electronic delivery system, and 10 cents per gigabyte transmitting records electronically.
An agency can instead charge a flat rate of $2 and have the ability to waive any fees that are determined unwarranted.
The bill allows for the denial of nonspecific requests, as well as computer-generated “bot” requests.
A Washington State auditor’s study showed state and local governments spent over $60 million during a year’s time span to fulfill 285,000 requests, most of which were for electronic records. The study also showed more than $10 million was spent on litigation fees.
Only 1 percent of the costs were recovered under the original fee structure, which allowed agencies to charge 15 cents per photocopy page of paper records. According to Nealey’s statement, taxpayers covered the remainder of the costs.
“It’s been a difficult balancing act because even the smallest reforms have drawn criticism as an attack against public access to government records, which has never been our intention,” Nealey said in his statement. “That’s why it was important to bring all parties together to find a workable solution that will assist agencies in providing public records, reduce abusive requests that cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and create greater access to government records.”