Pasco might ask residents to weigh in on records request debate

Geoff Folsom, Herald staff writerNovember 16, 2013 

— Pasco is considering asking its residents if it should push for something that is now against the law.

A proposed question on Pasco’s community survey, which it sends out every two years, would ask residents about limiting public records requests.

The question acknowledges most requests are specific and limited in scope, but adds that some people “have used the system to make burdensome or harassing requests for huge volumes of non-specific documents.”

The broad and onerous requests consume huge amounts of staff time and are expensive for taxpayers, city leaders say.

If approved, Pasco’s survey will ask: To what extent do you agree that public records requesters, if making frequent, large volume requests, should be required to pay a proportionate share of the costs of making such requests?

Some states allow governments to charge for staff time for processing public records requests, but in Washington, they only can charge for the copies made, said Deputy Attorney General Christina Beusch.

Pasco Deputy City Manager Stan Strebel said the survey will help raise awareness with residents that the city is spending “significant” amounts on such requests.

“How do laws get changed?” he said. “Do the citizens know what the cost is and are they concerned about it under the law?”

When the city gets the results, along with the answers on up to two other questions, the council could decide if it wants to push the state Legislature to change state’s public records law.

In recent years, the Legislature has considered several measures that would have limited how agencies respond to requests.

One proposed change backed by Pasco would have allowed cities to take requesters into court, where they’d have to defend their request. And a judge could issue an injunction if the request was found to harass, intimidate, retaliate or punish, threaten security or pose an “undue burden.”

Other proposals would have allowed governments to limit the amount of time devoted to responding to records requests to as little as five hours a month.

But open-government advocates have argued there already are ways to deal with abusive requesters and they worry that restrictions would make it difficult to investigate wrongdoing within an agency.

Roger Lenk, who lives in the unincorporated “doughnut hole” area surrounded by west Pasco, may be the most recent, visible recent public records requester in Pasco, but he isn’t the only one.

Figures provided by the city show Lenk is No. 2 on a list of the top records requesters in the city in the past five years. He has made 34 requests.

Attorney Mary Mahoney of Kennewick is No. 1. She has made 42 requests seeking information about Tri-City Animal Control.

Other top requesters have worked with Lenk on annexation issues. They include Mark Mansell with 11 requests and Mark MacFarlan, who co-founded the anti-annexation group Citizens for Lifestyle Preservation with Lenk, with eight requests.

Since July 2011, Lenk has requested 120,000 pages of documents from Pasco, according to a public records request made by the Herald.

To meet those requests, the city has used 900 hours of staff time, costing $46,800.

That doesn’t include an estimated $120,000 in legal fees the city has paid in connection with Lenk’s records requests and lawsuits.

Plus, Superior Court Judge Bruce Spanner ordered the city to pay Lenk $12,000 in March 2012 after the judge found the city was several months too slow in delivering 17 documents to Lenk.

Lenk filed a lawsuit in October 2011 in Franklin County Superior Court in which he said the city withheld at least 12 documents and Franklin Fire District 3 withheld nine documents he was entitled to. The fire district later settled with Lenk for $10,000.

Lenk has been a longtime opponent of the city annexing the county doughnut hole, and after the city council voted in 2011 to start discussing annexing part of the area he made extensive requests for records from the four council members and Pasco’s city manager.

And Lenk, who lives in an area on Road 76 that the city did not annex, helped organize a petition to get two propositions on the Nov. 5 ballot. One measure would have nullified the recent annexation, as well as a smaller one from 2009. The other proposition would have changed Pasco’s council-city manager form of government. Both measures were soundly rejected by Pasco voters.

City Manager Gary Crutchfield said the city doesn’t have a problem providing any of the information Lenk has asked for. It’s the large volume that the causes concern.

Lenk, his wife, teenage son and other doughnut hole supporters have asked for everything from all city documents related to annexations since 1990, any documents involving the city’s comprehensive sewer plan and all public records from council members who voted in 2011 to discuss the “doughnut hole” annexation with the county.

Lenk’s requests asked for all emails from city and private accounts, phone call records, interactions with staff and “calendar, contacts and computer files, etc.” from council members Rebecca Francik, Saul Martinez, Matt Watkins and Mike Garrison, as well as Crutchfield.

Last month, Superior Court Judge Sal Mendoza dismissed Lenk’s public records lawsuit against Pasco, saying the city properly responded to Lenk’s request for personal and governmental emails sent to and by Francik and Martinez.

Mendoza said the city did a reasonable search for the emails.

The city gave Lenk a schedule of when he can expect to get the records. He has yet to receive Watkins’ emails and isn’t expected to get records until 2015 for Crutchfield, who began working for the city in 1978.

Strebel estimated that the remaining requests will cost tens of thousands more dollars and thousands more employee hours.

Crutchfield called Lenk’s requests ridiculous.

Lenk worked in city government and at a public hospital district in California before becoming human resources director for Richland in 1999. He interviewed for a job in Pasco but Crutchfield hired someone else. Lenk left his Richland job in 2006 because of systematic autoimmune disease.

“If anybody in the community should be able to narrow the requests, it should be him,” Crutchfield said.

He contends Lenk is upset about the annexation of areas near him.

“It’s all deliberate. It goes back to revenge,” Crutchfield said.

Strebel said Lenk has requested virtually every document the city has.

“There is only one word to describe that request and that’s ‘outrageous,’ ” he said.

A few years ago, Pasco City Clerk Debbie Clark used to spend 5 percent to 10 percent of her time dealing with public records requests and now spends about 90 percent of her time with requests, Crutchfield said.

In another one of Lenk’s requests, he’s asked to see what money has been spent within a half mile of 11 properties in the city, including those owned by Crutchfield and the council members who voted for annexation.

“I live right behind Chiawana Park,” Crutchfield said. “We spend $100,000 a year on that park. It doesn’t benefit me personally. It’s a public facility.”

Lenk said the efforts to restrict the state public records law began long before he made his requests.

“That has nothing to do with me. They have been doing that for years, as have many cities,” he said.

Lenk said he is merely holding cities to their constitutional responsibility to provide public records. He said that duty is more important than the responsibility to “protect and serve.

“Actually it’s more important, because there’s no requirement for them to provide police protection, but there is a requirement to make documents available to the public,” Lenk argued. “It could be very easy for them to just put everything online to where you don’t need to make a public records request, but the city of Pasco just avoids making things public.”

Lenk maintains he has only asked for computer files from the city, which are easy to access.

“All the cities try to do it, say it’s a mandated cost,” he said. “It’s not a mandated cost, it’s a requirement of being a city. If you want to be a city, your primary responsibility is to make the public have access to your records. Today that is so easy to do.”

Pasco is paying the National Research Center $6,000 to conduct its survey, Strebel said.

Past surveys have had about three questions, with issues ranging from improvements to downtown to a sales tax increase for a regional aquatics center.

In 2011, about 231 people completed and returned the survey.

Other issues being considered for the next survey include questions about development in the city’s Urban Growth Area, a management merit pay program, continued participation in the Regional Public Facilities District and city ambulance service for the doughnut hole area.

Surveys should be mailed in late November or early December.

The council will consider the survey questions at Monday’s meeting at 7 p.m. at city hall.

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service