Pasco considers fast track for small records requests

By Michelle Dupler, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 12, 2013 

Pasco officials estimate they're spending more than $100,000 per year in staff time responding to voluminous public records requests, but hope the creation of a public records "express lane" will make responses more efficient and less costly.

Deputy City Manager Stan Strebel told the city council during a workshop Monday that the city clerk once spent three or four hours per week on public records requests, but now spends about 36 hours per week.

And that doesn't count the time spent by staff in other departments that may need to respond with documents, Strebel said.

He compared the 17 requests that came in during December 2011 and January 2012 to the 60 requests the city has seen in the past two months.

Some of the requests have asked for broad categories of records. Strebel cited one from a resident asking for "any and all documents related to expenses, costs and fees associated with annexations from September 1, 2009 to present" in 19 different categories, and then finishing with "any and all categories not enumerated above."

Those kinds of broad and complex requests leave little time for more garden-variety requests, Strebel said.

Strebel proposed amending the city's records policy to lay out criteria to determine whether a request can be deemed large and complex. Those would be slow-tracked, while requests deemed simple and routine would be fast-tracked.

"The system we're proposing is much like you'd find in a local grocery store. We have express lanes and lanes for everyone else with full baskets," Strebel said.

He said it is unfair for citizens who want something quick and simple -- say a copy of the last city council agenda -- to wait in line behind someone who makes an "any and all" type of request that may take months or years to fulfill.

"We think the express lane provides that alternative, that opportunity for those who know what they want and come to the city seeking it in good faith," Strebel said. "We can turn those fairly quickly."

Councilman Bob Hoffmann asked what a court might think of the city putting on the back burner a requester thought to be on a mere fishing expedition or attempting to cost the city money and staff time.

Strebel said he believes other cities are using a similar approach, and that Pasco already makes informal decisions about which requests to bump to the front of the line.

He added that he thinks the public needs to hear what kind of taxpayer money is being spent on records requests that may be intended to be abusive.

City Manager Gary Crutchfield said some requests have come in asking for "any and all" of his correspondence on a particular issue.

"I've been here 34 years. What purpose could that serve other than a fishing expedition?" Crutchfield said.

The council is scheduled to consider a resolution amending the city's public records policy at next Monday's meeting.

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