JACK MAYNE: Should tax dollars be spent on unreasonable records requests?
Commentary by Senior Writer Jack Mayne
(click “Play” button to hear audio version:)
Do South King County taxpayers want thousands of their tax dollars spent to find, read and assemble information sought as a fishing expedition by some person or organization hoping to find anything that they could use for some personal reason?
That is happening every day in Burien, Des Moines, Normandy Park and SeaTac. These searches of complex computer records are required upon demand from any citizen as part of Washington’s public disclosure laws. Those laws were passed more than 40 years ago to inform citizens of the activities of elected officials at all ranks, including the members of our city councils and school boards.
Those original laws were written when a public records request meant a simple search of a file folder or two.
Today, most activity takes place on a computer, either as email or as some other type of textual correspondence. That means where once people had a verbal conversation with no records kept, now there are often a large number of digital communications that governments have in their computers. They are complex searches of many computers and servers, including the records of cell phones, portable computers and other devices.
Then all of those many files must be read and redacted to be certain there is no confidential information passed on to someone who is not supposed to have it. One city recently found a seemingly simple request yielded 200,000 emails that needed to be individually read before turning them over to the person who asked for them.
There are even devious trolls who will ask for all information in the government files on some broad subject. One recent request wanted all information for the entire history of a city on drunk driving matters – a subject that would yield millions of documents and take a lot of time to assemble.
Usually the one or two people in a city clerk’s office are detailed to find the records a citizen has asked for so it takes longer than the requester wants to wait. Or if the request is huge, a city can hire outside help which costs the taxpayers extra – for example one city spent well over $50,000 tax dollars to search for records figuring in a lawsuit.
No one wants to keep public records from the taxpayers who want them, but the law must be modified so that fishing demands for records are either stopped or the person demanding them be required to pay the expenses. Our taxpayers should not have to pay for someone’s data fishing expeditions of questionable value to the public.