OLYMPIA – Faced with a rapidly growing number of requests for public records, Spokane Public Schools wants to charge the public for the cost of locating and preparing those records.
Mark Anderson, associate superintendent, said the district 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 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,” said Jason Mercier, of the Washington Policy Center.
One of the questions in the brief hearing was the definition of “reasonable costs.” Anderson, the associate superintendent, 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 law already gives the district and other government agencies ways to manage their costs, but they usually don’t use them, said Toby Nixon, a former legislator and member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. They can fill requests in installments, spread the work out over time, and organize their records and put them on the Internet for easy access.
Charging for filling a request “creates an incentive to be slow and disorganized,” Nixon said.