Rep. Joe Schmick: Taking the ‘Gotcha!’ out of public records requests
When Washington’s voters adopted the state’s Public Records Act (PRA) under Initiative 276 in 1972, they wanted to make sure that state, county, and city governments operate openly and are transparent to the people. They recognized the best way to ensure transparency and accountability to the citizens of Washington is to require that most government records are made available to the public.
The PRA, however, was never intended to help some make money at the expense of governments or other Washington citizens. Unfortunately, there are a few bad actors, also known as “vexatious requesters,” who have learned how to financially profit through excessive, frivolous, and punitive public records requests.
The PRA requires that within five days of receiving a request, governments in Washington must respond. That response may be by providing the records; providing an internet address and link to the specific records requested; acknowledging the request and providing a reasonable estimate of the time it will take to respond; asking the requester to provide clarification on the request, and providing a reasonable amount of time it will take to respond if it is not clarified; or denying the request.
If a city, county, or state government doesn’t respond within the required time frame, the requester may seek financial damages from that agency through the courts, including attorney fees, and up to $100 a day for each day following the request.
In many cases, vexatious requesters have no interest in the public records themselves. Instead, they’re interested in financially profiting, using the PRA as a “Gotcha!” tool to cripple local governments.
In Mesa, population 490, a long-running public records dispute nearly cost the city $175,000. The ruling for damages was reversed by an appeals court, but the tiny city was still on the hook for 20 years of attorney’s fees. In another small town, one requester said he would settle for nothing less than $75,000 to stop the harassment. That may be a full year’s salary for one or two city employees. Let’s remember, these are taxpayer dollars necessary for essential city services, such as police and fire.
Former Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson recently testified in a House committee that Pullman has paid out nearly $100,000 in costs, including attorney fees and settlements to requesters, over the past 10 years. He said it’s usually less expensive to settle than to allow the requester to tie up the city for years in court.
These stories go on and on. But they shouldn’t. That’s why I have introduced legislation that would preserve open and transparent government, but also prevent vexatious requesters from terrorizing, bankrupting, and profiting from governments — especially our small and vulnerable communities.
House Bill 2307 would extend the denial of a public records request from two business days to 10 business days, following the denial of inspection. It would also allow the denial to be appealed through an administrative court judge. Plus, it would allow a court to determine whether the responding government acted in good faith and consider if the requester is participating in an “improper purpose” in pursuit of a monetary award, such as causing an unreasonable or frivolous increase in the cost of government operations or delay in government action.
Let’s restore the intent of the PRA, protest our smaller governments from vexatious claims, and take the “Gotcha!” out of public records requests.
Editor’s note: Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, represents and serves the 9th Legislative District.