Our Voice: Public records bills, with one exception, good step forward

When Washington voters approved the state’s Public Records Act in 1972, there was no thought to how technology would change the way we manage information in the future.

No provision 45 years ago mentioned how to deal with e-mails by elected officials. Electronic records did not exist, and digital fishing expeditions were not possible.

Fast-forward to today, and it is apparent technology has significantly changed the volume and complexity of the public records government agencies now must handle.

Fulfilling 285,000 records requests in 2015 cost local and state agencies $60 million, according to a 2016 state auditor’s report. Some of those requests, it turned out, were generated automatically by computers.

The auditor’s report also notes that record requests jumped 36 percent between 2011 and 2015.

And more requests are coming from private citizens, attorneys and business owners than from journalists — which is a new trend, according to Rowland Thompson, executive director of the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington.

By not keeping up with technology, the law has become outmoded and easily abused. City and county officials, especially, have been frustrated by what is commonly being referred to as “vexatious requesters.”

These are people who make unreasonable demands for a ridiculously large number of public records. They do this not so much to gather information, but rather, to burden public employees

Clearly, the law should not be exploited.

It needs updating. But legislative attempts to do that in the past have been strongly opposed by those in the newspaper industry and proponents of open government.

That’s not because we don’t believe the law needs adjusting. We do.

Until this year, however, the process was always one-sided. Lawmakers would craft bills on behalf of cities and counties without including the media. Then journalists — newspaper editorial writers, in particular — would argue against the legislation because it inevitably cut too deep into the Public Records Act, damaging its integrity.

Last year, we suggested that journalists be part of the process from the get-go. To his credit, State Rep. Terry Nealy, R-Dayton, took us up on that.

He helped organize meetings with officials in the newspaper industry, municipal government agencies and other stakeholders to discuss ways to update the Public Records Act without ruining its intent.

What emerged from those meetings are two bills that have been approved in the House and now are being tweaked in a Senate committee. Thompson said House Bill 1594 and House Bill 1595 are “works in progress” and there likely will be some trade-offs.

House Bill 1594 would require the state to provide public records management training to local government agencies. It also would study the creation of a statewide, central internet portal for public records requests, similar to the system used in Utah.

House Bill 1595 would allow government agencies to charge 10 cents a page for scanned documents and 10 cents per gigabyte of data for records transmitted electronically.

Currently, the cost for paper documents is 15 cents a page. Rowland said a modest charge for emails, attachments and electronic copies might slow down the harassment of public record keepers.

In addition, State Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, is pushing government officials to keep better track of the public records requests they receive.

That’s a wise suggestion. Anecdotal stories are not good enough. We need hard data to make informed decisions on how to better handle public record requests in the digital age.

We do have a concern, however, with a provision in House Bill 1595 that would allow agencies to charge a flat fee of $2 for any record request. Rowland said that is too high for small reports, and could penalize the “average Joe.”

That language should go, but aside from that, these two bills appear to be reasonable steps forward. We believe the process that led to their creation is what has made them acceptable so far, and that collaboration needs to continue.