Prosser and Mesa have become poster children for reforming Washington's Public Records Act.
The two small towns are featured prominently in the Association of Washington Cities' current issue of Cityvision magazine, which calls for reform of the 39-year-old act.
Controversies such as those in Prosser and Mesa have become more common in recent years, said Victoria Lincoln, Association of Washington Cities legislative and policy advocate.
All it takes is one disgruntled citizen or a major issue for a city to be buried in records requests, she said. While local governments acknowledge the importance of citizen access to government records, unintended effects of the law have been troublesome for some cities.
Some of the 21 bills being considered in the Legislature would make major changes to the act, such as adding the ability for public agencies to charge requesters for staff time to answer requests, requiring an attempt at addressing issues before a lawsuit can be filed, starting a pilot appeal program and limits on requests made by inmates.
The proposed reforms are disheartening for Donna Zink, former Mesa mayor, who sued her city for mishandling public records requests.
"It is just starting to work," Zink said, noting some bills would essentially gut the act and take away the penalties.
Those penalties are needed to hold agencies accountable when they make serious mistakes, Zink said.
Kennewick City Attorney Lisa Beaton said legislative changes would "strike a balance" by helping public agencies without taking away from the Public Records Act's original intent.
"With current law, the requester doesn't have to give notice (to the public agency) before asking for penalties," said Beaton, who favors a bill that would give a 15-day grace period to correct mistakes such as those that happened with Mesa.
Kennewick hasn't had anyone challenge it in the past decade over a records request, but Beaton is uneasy about what could happen.
"It's a minefield because of case law that has interpreted the act. It's getting more complicated. And if you get it wrong, the statute of limitations is one year," she said.
One major change the Legislature might consider is allowing public agencies to charge requesters for staff time spent answering a record request.
Lincoln said House Bill 1300 and Senate Bill 5088 could help cities that suffer when one person makes many requests or a large, time-consuming request.
The bills would give each person five free hours of city staff time per month. If requests took longer, the requester would be billed for the additional time or could ask to delay the remainder until the next month.
But Greg Overstreet, a former assistant attorney general who works on open government issues with Seattle's Allied Law Group, said such charges would deter people from making requests. He also said he believes cities are trying to find another revenue source.
"I think charging for search time would gut the Public Records Act," he said.
Another target during this legislative session is requests filed by inmates, which some agencies have pointed to as a burden.
SB 5099, sponsored by Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, would allow a public agency to ask the court to approve the denial of public records if the inmate is using the act to harass the agency, or if the records could endanger someone's safety.
The most time-consuming request the small town of Mesa received in 2010 was from an inmate, Brandon Burrell, 31, of Seattle. He requested payroll information, the most recent election results and construction costs for city projects from 2006-09, said clerk-treasurer Terri Standridge.
That request resulted in a stack of more than 400 pages, Standridge said.
The records have been waiting at city hall since last summer because Burrell has not arranged to get them.
Burrell said in a letter that he requested the documents because he had heard allegations the town was misappropriating money and wanted to see how money was spent.
Burrell, who made more than 160 public records requests during 2010 while at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, was convicted of first-degree robbery, unlawful possession of a firearm and bribery of a witness. He has been incarcerated since April 14, 2009.
"Allowing an agency to deny a PRA request to inmates would not be American," he said in a letter.
Although Overstreet opposes many of the suggested changes in the Public Records Act, he agrees change is needed. But he wants to put teeth back in the law, not remove its bite.
The act has been eroded almost beyond recognition from the original 1972 citizen initiative that created it, Overstreet said. He would love to have the act go back to its original form, with only 10 exemptions for withholding records. It now has 300, he said.
Many people lack the money to take the government to court, and even if a court awards a penalty the agency's insurance, not the agency itself, often foots the bill, Overstreet said.
"Agencies can ignore the act and nothing ever happens to them," he said.
State Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, wants citizens who make public records requests to remember they are spending taxpayer money to obtain information.
But Overstreet said the cost savings that happen when government is open and transparent should be weighed when debating the real costs of the act.
Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers in Washington, said Senate Bill 5685, introduced Feb. 7, would give judges total discretion in setting penalties and might be the best answer.
The bill sponsored by Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, and Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, would remove the top and bottom on penalties and let judges have full review on each case. It would be simpler than sorting through a patchwork of other proposed reforms, Thompson said.