JACK MAYNE: Should tax dollars be spent on unreasonable records requests?

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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.

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15 Responses to “JACK MAYNE: Should tax dollars be spent on unreasonable records requests?”
  1. Oman says:

    Who is to determine “questionable value”?
    Some government entity meeting behind closed doors?
    What of transparency, the citizen’s protection from abuse of power?

    • Steven Taub says:

      Endless requests of the same thing should be limited, but a discussion has to happen at some time with the public’s input on how much is enough. Any request is acceptable, but perhaps if you’re requesting the same information on a daily basis, some degree of limits can be enforced. And many records could be made available to the public with redaction of the logical sections, and would significantly reduce the costs.

      If we as the public truly want to have unlimited searches all the time on everything we should think about the costs of doing it, and expect to pay for the resources to manage the requests. I thnk It is unreasonable to expect every person every day can request an unlimited amount of information on anything at anytime.

  2. eric says:

    Governments have fought the people’s right to know what the government is doing from the beginning. I have been involved with Public Record Act from the beginning. It took the Washington Supreme Court to put teeth into the Act.

    While it is true that an open government costs more than a closed secretive closed government, that is not a reason to change the Act.

    As the Washington Supreme Court said in March of this year:

    “The purpose of the act is “nothing less than the preservation of the most central
    tenets of representative government, namely, the sovereignty of the people and the accountability to the people of public officials and institutions.” Progressive Animal Welfare Soc’y v. Univ. of Wash., 125 Wn.2d 243, 251, 884 P.2d 592 (1994); see also RCW 42.56.030. To effectuate the PRA’s purpose, the legislature declared that the PRA “shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed.” RCW 42.56.030. The language of the PRA must be interpreted in a manner that furthers the PRA’s goal of ensuring that the public remains informed so that it may maintain control over its government. Id.; see, e.g., Yakima County v. Yakima Herald-Republic, 170 Wn.2d 775, 797, 246 P.3d 768 (2011).”

    WADE’S EASTSIDE GUN SHOP, INC. v. Labor & Industry, 185 Wn.2d 270, 372 P.3d 97 (2016).

    In my view, rather than tightening the Act, making it harder for the people to find out what their government is doing, the Act should be loosen making it easier for the people to find out what their government is doing.

  3. Joey Hopps says:

    If they want the records, they can pay for them.

  4. Out here on the edge... says:

    Maybe we could have an arbitration committee of disinterested citizens, who could make a determination as to whether a request is irrational/groundless or not. We need protection from abuse of baseless requests, as well as abuse of power.

  5. I don’t think it is unreasonable to have the person requesting records to pay for the copying of the records and perhaps a flat fee based on the estimated time they are asking the City to spend on their behalf. After all, we pay fees for everything else we do with the city. Why should citizens have to pay for individual’s fishing expeditions?

  6. Ctac says:

    To all there own.

  7. Gregory Duff says:

    Perhaps the names of the people requesting the records should be made public. In Burien it is one person who has consistently asked for records. This person is costing us all tax dollars just so she can carry on her vindictive crusades. If the people saw who this is they just might have a different opinion of her, her husband and her group.

    • Question Authority says:

      Does her first name start with a “C” and end with an “e” ? Vague is not legally binding.

    • Joel M says:

      I thought this article was in reference to the request for ALL information made by someone a year or two ago. Was a young man from Federal Way(?) not a local woman. If there is a local citizen in your opinion abusing the records request law why not just use their name and present the case as you see it for their abuse?

  8. Question Authority says:

    What about the enormous waste of all that aluminum foil being used to line all those hats worn by conspiracy theorists?

  9. Wilbur Post says:

    Let me begin by saying I’m not computer wise beyond email and google. With that being said, are the requested records stored on a computer hard drive? If so, why can’t the information be copied to a USB thumb drive given to the person requesting information files? That person can take the drive home for personal viewing. If printed copies are desired the requester can print them from home or a copy/print business.

  10. Question Mark says:

    … or, as a reasonable alternative, local jurisdictions could start filing public records in a more public-records-friendly way so that they can be retrieved by the jurisdiction and/or retrieved by the public at minimal cost …

  11. Jimmy says:

    I think the person or persons that want this information.

    1. They should have to prove there reason for needing the information.

    2. They should pay all costs for the city employee or employees that spend time working on getting the information instead of on the tax payers dime.

    3. A simple background and mental health records check should be done on the person or persons asking for the information. Also a check on any restraining orders on the person or persons involved.

    4. There should also be a limit on how many requests can be made by one person or organisation in a year.

    I can understand there are people that think any form of government is up to something but if these people want the information they need to pay for it.

  12. Concerned Burien says:

    There is no such thing as an unreasonable records request.

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