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Anonymous records requests a tricky area for assessors

Washington’s Public Records Act often produces sharp reactions from government officials, especially when it is used as a blunt instrument.

When former Spokane County appraiser Josh Bungen used anonymous email addresses to request hundreds of thousands of assessor’s records, county commissioners endorsed legislation to darken the sunshine law.

The two now-dead bills commissioners endorsed were just some of those pending in the Washington Legislature.

Among those that remained alive this week, one would allow judges to waive penalties for violations of the records act.

Neither of the bills commissioners endorsed dealt with what some county officials saw as a key issue: anonymous email requests.

Technology now allows malicious or frivolous requests without any of the social constraints that traditionally have regulated public behavior.

When the Public Records Act was created by initiative in 1972, people weren’t required to give their names, but untraceable email accounts didn’t exist. Someone, if only an intermediary, generally had to appear in person or give a postal address.

Still, advocates for the disclosure law say it is important to allow anonymous requests. Otherwise, fear of retaliation might prevent some legitimate requests.

Fortunately, technology also makes it easier for public officials to provide records, said Greg Overstreet, an Olympia attorney who specializes in public records requests.

As the first disclosure “ombudsman” in the attorney general’s office, Overstreet wrote the state’s model rules for implementation of the Public Records Act.

“No one has ever come up with a way to screen out the bad requests while keeping all of the good ones,” Overstreet said.

He cited an ongoing recall drive against Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam on the basis of records uncovered by newspaper records requests.

“I imagine that the Pierce County assessor thought the Tacoma News Tribune’s requests were unreasonable and difficult to comply with,” Overstreet said.

Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said anonymity can be important to government critics whose requests sometimes run into a brick wall of excuses and obfuscation.

Public officials should limit the resources they devote to records requests instead of trying to limit the requests people are allowed to make, Nixon said.

The Public Records Act allows agencies to budget the time they can spend on records requests and still get their basic work done. Responses may be done in installments to stay within the budget.

That’s essentially how Spokane County Assessor Vicki Horton is responding to Bungen’s request, but Nixon said officials need to establish formal policies that are applied to all requests.

“You have to have a way to say that other requests can jump the queue” if large ones get in the way, Nixon said.

He said he is working on a model resolution to help local governments establish such a policy.