OLYMPIA – Faced with a rapidly growing number of requests for public records, the Spokane School District wants to charge the public for the cost of locating and preparing those records.
Mark Anderson, associate superintendent, said District 81 wants to pass on the "reasonable costs" of complying with public records requests, which have tripled over the last three years and now cost the district an estimated $70,000 a year.
A bill that would allow districts all over the state to do that received a brief hearing this week in the Senate budget committee, but in a fashion that has some government watchdogs criticizing the process. Senate Bill 6576 is probably dead; the issue, however, is still alive. . .
The bill was introduced too late to get a hearing in a policy committee where the merits of such a change to state law would normally be debated. Instead, it was scheduled last Saturday for a Monday hearing in the budget committee, in the middle of a glut of fiscal bills facing a looming deadline, and with witnesses given one minute to comment.
"This policy change should receive a full public vetting for changing a law passed by the people," Jason Mercier, of the Washington Policy Center, said.
One of the questions in the brief hearing was the definition of "reasonable costs." Anderson said the district would like to be able to charge a public records requester the wages for the amount of time employees spend locating, separating and redacting documents. Some information must be removed to comply with privacy laws; other information can be removed, under various exemptions, at the district’s discretion.
While Anderson called the costs of filling public records requests an unfunded mandate from the state, Mercier argued that it’s really a mandate from the voters. The Public Records Act was passed by initiative in 1972 with a 72 percent approval rating; government agencies have sought exemptions and restrictions in many of the succeeding years.
The Spokane School Board put help with recovering the costs of public records requests on its list of legislative priorities at last month’s board meeting. Members of the board later asked Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown for help during a recent visit to Olympia.
When Brown proposed SB 6576 bill that went straight to the Ways and Means Committee without a hearing in the Government Operations Committee, government watchdogs like Mercier wondered if the bill was "greased" for quick passage.
But Brown said Tuesday that bill will die in the Ways and Means Committee. It could, however, prompt a change in another proposed revision to the Public Records Act, which allows a government agency to ask a judge for an injunction to block any request to inspect or copy a public record.
That bill is aimed at "harassing" public records requests, and may be a better vehicle to address concerns about large requests putting a strain on budgets, Brown said. It did have a full hearing in a policy committee and was sent to the Senate for a possible vote. But she doesn’t know if it has enough support yet to pass.
Open government advocates also object to that bill, saying a person shouldn’t need to hire a lawyer and go to court to obtain a public record. A similar version of that bill died in a House committee and is unlikely to get a vote in that chamber unless it passes the Senate.
Anderson said the district wouldn’t object to waiting until next year on its proposal: "The public should get a chance to comment."