Bill targeting public records access is dead

By LaVendrick Smith

WNPA Olympia News Bureau



OLYMPIA-A controversial bill that would have allowed local agencies to prioritize how they fulfill public records requests is dead.

House Bill 2576, which drew criticism from open-government proponents, but had strong support from local government entities, has been placed in the Washington State House Rules Committee "X" file, and will receive no further consideration this session, said the bill's sponsor Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland.

McBride's proposal, which was aimed at stopping overly broad and harassing requests of local agencies, saw several changes throughout the session since its first hearing in the House committee on local government.

"If it did come back, it would be something you haven't seen," McBride said.

McBride said the bill's final version had only three provisions: It would have stopped requesters from asking for all of an agency's records; stopped requesters from using electronic devices to automatically send requests to local agencies, a process used by some commercial public records aggregators that sell those records to clients, and it would have created a task force to review issues concerning public-records requests.

Initially, the bill allowed local agencies to limit the time they spent on records requests each month, and set up a commission to help mediate situations between requesters and agencies before those conflicts went to court. The bill also required requestors who sought records for commercial purposes to pay an agency's cost for fulfilling the requests. The legislation never applied to state agencies.

Proponents of open government feared the bill would undermine the Public Records Act, and critics said not all of the stakeholders affected by the proposal were involved in crafting the legislation.

Rowland Thompson, of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, said McBride only spoke with cities and agencies burdened by requests and didn't seek much input from the requestor community.

"You can't just drop a bill in the session that's that controversial and expect to have success with it," Thompson said.

Thompson said the issue of people sending harassing and burdensome requests to agencies should be taken seriously, but there are only a few dozen individuals who abuse the requests. He hopes that future legislation will seek more input from requestors about how to fix the problem.

Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said local agencies aren't doing enough within current law to effectively deal with the harassing issue.

He wants more local governments to follow the city of Kirkland's example, which in recent years passed an ordinance that lets the city categorize requests based on their complexity, size and number of departments involved, among other things. Nixon also serves on the Kirkland City Council.

"We're not prioritizing the requests," Nixon said. "The requests are processed in the order they're received, so it's first come, first served, within each category. The purpose of that is so that small, routine requests don't get crowded out by large, complex requests, but they all still get service."

Future changes for how public-records requests are handled may still be underway.

The House supplemental budget proposal has an amendment that would allocate $250,000 to the University of Washington's Ruckelshaus Center to do a study on public records in the state. It would study the issues local governments deal with concerning harassing requests, problems requesters face, and would determine if a public records commission is needed, among other things.

"So they're going to take kind of an objective look," McBride said.

Thompson said he supports the idea of having the Ruckelshaus Center study the issue, but ultimately hopes to see dialogue by all stakeholders on the issue during the Legislature's interim.

"The cities and counties, if they were really dedicated to it, would put together some sort of long-term effort and get people to come to the table," he said. "That's how you settle stuff, by negotiating, rather than just dropping something in and trying to force it through."

(This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. Reach reporter LaVendrick Smith at lavendricksmith@gmail.com; follow him on Twitter: @LaVendrickS)

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