You won't find a bigger advocate for access to public records than this newspaper. You also won't find a bigger proponent of using common sense when making requests for public documents.
Such is the case with attorney John Ziobro's request for the Port of Kennewick to turn over all documents pertaining to travel and other expenses of port employees, consultants and contractors from Jan. 1, 2005, to the present.
When Ziobro made the request under the Open Public Records Act in August, the port had just finished its own investigation at the time, looking into Commissioner David Hanson's travel expenses.
The port found $1,170 in questionable travel expenses over two years. Hanson denied any impropriety but refunded the amount anyway.
Ziobro hasn't disclosed who his client is or what the impetus is for his request for six years worth of expenses. But finding the documents has become a huge burden on the port, with its director Tim Arntzen saying at one point that projects would have to be delayed while port staff tended to the request as required by law. It was also estimated that the request would cost $60,000 in port staff time.
With 38,000 pages of paperwork to consider, we can see why Arntzen sounded the alarm. The port now has hired a law firm to deal with the records request. It will cost the port $31,000 a year to contract with the firm and estimates it will take two years to complete. That's a bargain when compared to eating up port staff time and taking them away from other important duties.
Port staff could only dedicate three hours a day on the records review but the law firm has the ability to spend more time on the project. The firm, Cowan Moore Stam Luke Peterson & Carrier, will initially charge $30 an hour for three months of work. At that point, the progress will be considered and the schedule and rate could be changed.
It's wise for the port to contract the work to a third party. As Arntzen said, that will allow employees to focus on their jobs, get the port back to normal operating levels and catch up on projects and work that had to be put off to deal with the records request.
It would be even smarter for Ziobro -- a former city attorney himself who is well-versed in the drain on resources a broad records request can have on a government entity -- to narrow his search to what he actually needs.
The port says the Kennewick attorney has not been responsive, and a letter asking him to clarify his request went unanswered. The port was hoping that opening a dialogue would decrease the volume of documents that must be reviewed.
Ziobro says the port has never asked to discuss his request, but he's sure that 38,000 pages of paperwork on the matter will include a lot of documents he doesn't need. He says the port is playing a game.
Common sense should prevail in this case, as it should in many public records requests. Ziobro should try to find a way to narrow the scope of his request to the information he really believes he needs for his client.
As the former city attorney for Kennewick, he ought to know better than most how to zero in on the documents he really wants. He doesn't have to wait for the port's letter to arrive. The phone number is in the book.
With 2,100 pages provided to Ziobro at this point and thousands more to be reviewed, this request has a long and expensive road ahead of it for taxpayers in the port district.
But accountability for how public funds are spent that the state Open Public Records Act provides is a big deal, and the basis for many a newspaper article exposing misuse of public money. The port district's records belong to the public, and Ziobro has every right to them. We just hope he can narrow his request to make it a more reasonable task.