Port of Kennewick commissioners decided this week to hire a law firm to plow through about 38,000 pages of documents before releasing them in their largest ever public records request.
Tim Arntzen, the port's executive director, said port commissioners believe paying $31,000 a year to a Richland law firm to conduct the estimated two-year records review will be more efficient than port employees doing it.
Not only will the attorneys do the job as well, but port staff also will be freed up to go back to more vital port business, Arntzen said.
In August, Kennewick attorney John Ziobro requested under the Open Public Records Act all travel and other expense records of all port employees, consultants and contractors dating back to Jan. 1, 2005.
The request came just as the port was concluding an internal investigation into questionable expenses by Commissioner David Hanson.
He was found to have submitted $1,170 in questionable travel expenses over a two-year period. While denying any wrongdoing, he refunded the full amount to the port.
Ziobro hasn't revealed who his client is or why he wants to look at six years of port expense paperwork. That is not required under state records law.
Tammy Fine, the port's finance director, told commissioners last month that her time involved in identifying, locating, copying and reviewing the requested records is all-consuming and likely would end up costing about $60,000 in staff time.
Having the process handled by lawyers may cost less, Fine said at Tuesday's commission meeting.
The law firm of Cowan Moore Stam Luke Petersen & Carrier will charge $30 an hour for three months of work, according to the contract approved this week. After the first three months, the progress will be evaluated and there could be a change in the work schedule and rate of pay.
Fine estimated it could be December 2013 before the review is done.
Arntzen told commissioners that port staff can commit to doing no more than three hours a day on the records review, while a law firm can dedicate more time to the project.
Arntzen told the Herald he came up with the idea to contract out the records review out of concern about workload and stress on the port staff.
"Hiring a contractor will allow staff to focus on essential job functions, return port operating levels to near normal and provide an opportunity to catch up on postponed projects and duties," Arntzen wrote in a memo to commissioners.
Bridgette Scott, port executive assistant, said Ziobro has not been responsive to the port, asking him by letter to clarify what he is looking for, hoping to reduce the volume of records needing to be reviewed.
Ziobro told the Herald he hasn't received such a request from the port.
"They've never asked if there was a way to reduce my request, which I'm sure there is if there's 38,000 pages," he said Wednesday.
"This is games on their part. I have no idea what it is that is creating the volume. They have never once asked if there was a way to reduce the volume, which of course I would be glad to do if they made such an inquiry," Ziobro said.
Skip Novakovich, port commission president, said he was shocked that Ziobro insisted the port has not asked him to clarify the request.
"My understanding is he hasn't even answered us," Novakovich said.
As of this week, the port has given Ziobro about 2,100 pages of records.