Legislation Introduced Aimed at Reducing Abusive Public Records Requests in WA State
Mia Carlson

Legislation Introduced Aimed at Reducing Abusive Public Records Requests in WA State

OLYMPIA, WA - Two pieces of legislation were introduced yesterday that, if passed, would reduce abusive, "vexatious" public records requests.  Officials say the bills would preserve government access and transparency.

According to a 2016 report from the Washington State Auditor's Office, the number of requests increased by 36% from 2011 to 2015, and last year, state and local governments spent more than $60 million to fulfill 285,000 requests - a portion of which were automated "bot" requests from computers. Only 1% of the costs were recovered by the original law's fee structure.

House Bills 1594 and 1595 were drawn up following months of meetings with city, county, and state officials, media representatives, citizens, and open-government advocates.  Representative Terry Nealey (R-Dayton) and Representative Joan McBride (D-Kirkland) introduced the bills.  They would update the 1972 Public Records Act, including fees contained in the original law, and provide assistance to help governments fulfill legitimate requests.

"It is essential for the public to have open and unobstructed access to their government. By no means are we trying to change the original intent of the Public Records Act. However, technology has changed significantly, opening the door for much broader and more complex records requests," Nealey says. "And in recent years, the number of these requests have exploded, including from those whom I call 'vexatious requestors' — people who have little or no legitimate interest in the records themselves, other than to force agencies to spend precious time and limited resources trying to fulfill the requests."

"The two bills we are introducing update the Public Records Act and will help requestors access records and local agencies save taxpayers’ dollars," McBride adds.

From Washington State House of Representatives:
Under House Bill 1595, a public records request must be for an identifiable record. Requests for all or substantially all records prepared, owned, used or retained by an agency would not be considered a valid request for identifiable records. Agencies could deny multiple bot requests within a 24-hour period from the same source if it causes excessive interference with other essential functions of the agency.

Nealey says the law allows governments to charge 15 cents per photocopy page of paper records. But, he says, electronic records didn't exist 45 years ago, so the bill would update the PRA fee structure to reflect modern technology.

"The city of Seattle estimates it will spend as much as $3 million this year for PRA request fulfilment, including electronic requests, but expects less than $10,000 in cost recovery," he added. "Our legislation would enable an agency to study its actual costs of making and preparing for delivery electronic copies of documents for a requestor, and then charge a modest fee based on those copying costs. We think this will reduce vexatious requests while preserving access with an updated fee system."

Nealey said actual costs could also be based upon a Seattle city detailed cost study. Or if the agency has not determined actual cost, it may not charge in excess of:

·       15 cents per photocopy page and the actual charge of delivery, envelopes and postage;
·       10 cents per page for electronic records scanned;
·       10 cents per minute for copies of audio or video recordings;
·       40 cents for each 25 electronic attachments uploaded to email, cloud-based data storage or other means of electronic delivery; and
·       10 cents per gigabyte to send records electronically.

An agency may also charge a flat $5 fee as an alternative to the fees above or a customized service charge for exceptionally complex requests. Agencies may also waive fees altogether.

A second measure, House Bill 1594, would assist agencies in efficient management of documents and public records requests, according to McBride.

This bill helps our local governments be more efficient and honors the requests of individuals and businesses,” said Rep. McBride.

McBride said the bill would create a grant program to help local governments, particularly smaller agencies, pay for training to better manage records. Additionally, it would allow the Attorney General's office to assist local governments in complying with requests, provide a procedure to get requestors to clarify their requests, and create a study to explore the creation of a statewide online portal for public records access.

Nealey and McBride said they spent many hours working with a broad spectrum of citizens for several months, including representatives of the news media, to ensure a workable compromise that could reduce abuses while preserving open government.

“It has been a joy working with Representative Nealey and all the stakeholders to bring these bills before the Legislature for consideration,” McBride said. “I believe we can find a bipartisan solution to this emergent issue.”

"If we can decrease excessive illegitimate, abusive requests, it will increase access for citizens who want and deserve transparency from their governments. Plus, it will decrease costs and litigation, all of which is eventually paid by taxpayers, and ensure better service to the public. We believe this is a reasonable approach toward fixing an outdated system," concluded Nealey.

The bills have been referred to the House State Government Committee.

House Bill 1595: http://app.leg.wa.gov/billsummary?BillNumber=1595&Year=2017 .

House Bill 1594: http://app.leg.wa.gov/billsummary?BillNumber=1594&Year=2017 .

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