Anonymous public disclosure requests threaten to cripple two Spokane County departments, commissioners were told Tuesday.
Assessor Vicki Horton and Information Systems Director Bill Fiedler said numerous scattershot requests for documents from two untraceable e-mail addresses could tie up their departments for decades.
As a result, county commissioners warmed to a pair of bills moving through the Legislature that would put new restrictions on the state Public Records Act.
Horton believes the requests are intended to disrupt the office she took over last month after defeating incumbent Ralph Baker. Clearly, she said, the requests are from someone who has worked in the office.
The requests use technical terminology and cast aspersions on several department employees by name.
Horton and Fiedler said 16 requests were received from accountableassessors @hotmail.com and concernedinspokane@hotmail. com. They were received on Dec. 31, and Jan. 1, 2, 9 and 15.
Each day’s messages were separated by just a few minutes.
Civil Deputy Prosecutor Jim Emacio said courts have ruled that people don’t have to give their names to request public documents. Failure to comply could result in fines up to $100 a day indefinitely.
So several highly paid county employees spent days sifting through 20 million archived e-mail messages to find 501,000 that now must be inspected, redacted and converted to a different format for delivery.
“It could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete this,” Horton said in an interview. “We just don’t have the resources.”
Horton said officials estimate it will take about 10,000 man-hours to process the half-million e-mails. She’s devoting an hour a day to the task.
At that rate, Horton said, it will take 40 years to finish the work, but “our staffing just doesn’t allow us to do more than that.”
And that’s just the request for all e-mail messages sent or received by the Assessor’s Office since 1990.
Officials have identified about 40 categories of information in the sometimes overlapping, multi-pronged requests from the two Hotmail addresses.
The county already has delivered about 4,000 electronic “pages” containing records of a quarter-million property sales.
The documents were placed in a special account on a county computer so they could be downloaded without adding hundreds of e-mails to the archive.
Other requests seek paper documents. For example, one request calls for: “All files both digital and physical, of all employees in the assessor’s office, currently in existence as of today. Everything in their possession on county property.”
Horton said the anonymous requests ask all the documents to be delivered electronically, but scanning the 1.2 million paper files would cost about $9,000 – a cost the anonymous requestor will have to pay.
The scanning won’t start until “accountableassessors” puts up a 10 percent deposit.
Emacio told commissioners he thought two bills in Legislature would help curb the problem without reducing government transparency.
One would require people who aren’t satisfied with an agency’s response to discuss the problem with agency officials before filing a lawsuit.
The other would allow public agencies to charge employee salaries for records requests that require more than five hours of work in a month. If the person making the request doesn’t want to pay, agencies could respond by devoting only five hours a month to the effort.
Commissioners agreed with Fiedler’s criticism that neither bill addresses the issue of anonymous requests.
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