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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Prepare for complaints about the cost of providing public records

Cities, counties and state agencies spent at least $60 million – and probably much more – on fulfilling requests for government records last year, a new state audit finds.

Brace yourself for the wave of complaints from government officials telling you that’s too much – complaints that are likely to find their way into legislative proposals to restrict public access to government information. This would be a lousy and undemocratic direction, but there is nothing surprising in it: among the most predictable results of public accountability for governments are rote complaints about the hardships of providing public accountability.

It’s just such a burden.

The truth is, however, that the new report from the state auditor could reasonably be seen as describing not a problem but a boon: More people are requesting records, more kinds of records and technologies are being provided, and governments have to spend more time and effort providing them.

To whom does that sound like a bad thing? To those who have to do the work, and to those who don’t like the fact that the work must be done. Would it increase “efficiency” to cut back on the records? Of course it would. Imagine how sparklingly efficient government would be if it didn’t have to fulfill any of them.

Auditors surveyed a wide range of governments, from cities to universities to state agencies. Respondents received 285,000 requests for records in the previous year, totaling more than $60 million in costs.

The cost figure is quite limited by the fact that nearly half of respondents could not break down expenses specifically. And every other figure in the report is limited by the fact that the only priorities come from government officials themselves – it measures costs, ignores benefits.

This is not necessarily the fault of the auditors, who measure the measurable. But the report is silent on the single most important question: Is there any corresponding value to the public for that cost and expense?

Among the survey findings:

People are requesting more records these days. The average annual number of requests has risen 36 percent since 2011 among survey respondents. In addition, officials reported receiving more complicated requests – enormous blanket requests for every record on a topic or technologically complicated data requirements. The average cost of fulfilling a request rose 70 percent since 2011.

Governments were able to fill most requests in short order. The law allows governments five days to fill a request or inform a requester that more time is needed. Almost half of all requests were filled within five days. Just 14 percent of all requests took longer than 21 days. Also, a minority of respondents – 19 percent – said records requests result in “excessive interference” with other essential functions.

There was a huge variability from agency to agency. One state agency reported spending $6.8 million on records, but the average for state agencies was $373,867. Cities, on average, spent $137,000, though the maximum was $1.4 million. This makes sense, because circumstances have a lot to do with volume of requests. For instance, Spokane led all agencies in requests during the previous year, reporting more than 16,000. It’s not clear how many of those were directly associated with the Straub affair, but requests here rose as it became apparent that it would take public records to tell a truth that the city’s leaders were not telling. The story is about more than convenience.

Governments can’t recover many of their costs. Current law prohibits governments from charging requesters for staff time, which makes up the vast majority of costs.

Responding is complicated and getting more so. Maintaining digital records requires expensive data systems, and it can be taxing to negotiate the requirements of answering requests, evaluating whether information falls under any of 400 possible exemptions, and ensuring legal review. Plus, there are many different kinds of data now that were not envisioned in the all-paper yesteryear of 1973, when the public records law was passed. All of this is especially taxing for smaller offices.

The upshot: The audit concludes that the “deluge” of requests, paired with insufficient resources, could erode transparency itself. “Such challenges, if not addressed, may undermine the original intent of public records laws and the provision of essential government services,” the report concludes.

Of course, one way to look at this would be that cities, counties and the state need to devote more resources to providing public records to citizens. Just kidding! Naturally, this is not what we should expect in terms of solutions, especially from a Legislature that has conveniently exempted itself from some public records laws.

No, it does not take a genius to see where this road will lead: proposals to restrict requests and limit access. This might mean charging more for records, limiting access to certain records, putting a cap on numbers of records sought, and any number of other “solutions” that would privilege the convenience of government over the right of the public to have access to the documents.

The public records law works. It may be inconvenient for officials. It may cost money. It may require attention to the digital details, and it might require investments in data systems. And it surely is a burden for those who would prefer that the public just swallow their prepackaged manipulations of the truth.

But it is the most important tool citizens have for asserting their constitutional ownership of the government, a sovereignty of which government officials require continual reminders.

In that regard, we might regard these millions spent as a bargain.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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