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City updates its public records law to save time

State law gives the power of information to the public, but city officials are left to foot a large bill to cover the costs of the Public Records Act.

Created in 1972, the Washington Public Records Act (PRA) was intended to insure open government and transparency.

At the City of Bainbridge Island,  like many other cities around the country, public record requests (PRR) have turned into a major line item in the city’s budget.

“The law very clearly puts the burden of responding to PRR on the city government,” said City Attorney Jack Johnson. “In most instances that is a reasonable way to do things, but there are some ways to abuse it and wind up bringing up staff time to inflict some type of burden or pain on the city.”

State law doesn’t allow the city to recoup the actual labor costs for searching, sifting, redacting and retrieving public records, Johnson said. A public record can mean anything from a map, video, film, handwriting to email or voice messages, according to state law.

The council approved an ordinance on Wednesday to update PRR processes to reflect changes in the PRA passed by the State Legislature in 2006. The new measure adds a small uptick in fees for copies and technology costs, and is also an attempt to improve the clarity of the rules.

“Our costs are amplified by the mysteries and vagaries of what it is we do,” said Johnson. “These guidelines will save some staff time.”

According to a public records request total Bainbridge staff time and cost allocation for records requests, including the Bainbridge Island Police Department, which tracks and processes their requests separate, include:

• 2009: $57,661.63 and 1,748 hours

• 2010: $44,439.27 and 1,340 hours

• 2011: $32,294.66 and 984 hours (through May 20)

In 2010, the police processed 572 records requests and has processed 205 through June 1, 2011. Interim City Manager Brenda Bauer said there is no clear record for requests in 2009.

Requests through all other city departments were 580 in 2009, 603 in 2010 and 179 through June 2, 2011. Of the 1,362 requests to departments other than police, 110 came from a combination of five individuals.

Cities are only allowed to charge 15 cents per one-sided, standard size copy of a public document. The city bumped its fee to 30 cents if citizens want a larger format document or color copies. If an individual wants digital copies the ordinance creates a $5 technology charge for a CD.

The island fees are similar to those of other locales. The City of Bremerton charges 50 cents per copy if the public makes its own copies and between 1 cent and 30 cents per page for staff to make a copy. The first 50 pages are free to the public, and the city charges $10 for a CD with audio, video or digital copies.

Similarly the City of Sammamish charges 15 cents per page after the first 10 pages, and $5 per CD, DVD or cassette for video, audio and digital copies.

The ordinance also makes clarifications such as the ability for requesters to make requests in person, over the phone, mail or email instead of “written.”

According to the Washington State Coalition for Open Government there is no requirement that the requester identify themselves or explain their purpose for the request, and agencies are prohibited from asking, with limited exception.

As cities around the state are forced to cut staff and squeeze tax dollars to operate city hall, complying with growing records requests has put a strain on budgets. Some cities are running into problems where one or a select few individuals are consuming major staff time and resources.

In 2008, the City of Bellingham received 46 public records requests from one individual, and expect the entire request to top $1 million, according to a 2010 Association of Washington Cities (AWC) report.

The City of Sumner is trying to cope with a request for all records on sidewalks and one asking for all emails, cell phone records, voice mails and computer records of two city officials. More than 17 city employees have been studying, redacting and preparing the documents. The city can only charge the requisite 15 cents per page, according to the AWC.

Johnson said that at COBI there are a minority of individuals who seek public records requests in a more punitive way in an effort to burden staff. Others submit requests spanning thousands or even tens of thousands in pages.

“A lot of time we can talk with the person and ask if they really mean all the records they have literally described, which could take months to sort through, find and make available,” said Johnson. “Sometimes people do want that set of records and they understand it make take a lot of staff time, and as a result their records come in installments over a period of months.”

Johnson said there are times when an individual makes a broad request and refuses to clarify it, which creates a burden on staff.

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