Higher fees, other changes to public records law advance at state Capitol

By Walker Orenstein

The News Tribune

Relief for cities and counties who say they struggle with the cost of meeting public records requests is one step closer to reality in the state Legislature.

A pair of bills aimed at making it more affordable for local governments to release public information — in part by banning requests for all of an agency’s records — were approved by the state House with considerable bipartisan support earlier this month.

The legislation still faces criticism from some, including concerns from open records advocates over a new price hike on public documents in the legislation.

House Bill 1595 and House Bill 1594 are now under consideration in the Senate and have public hearings on Wednesday.

State Rep. Joan McBride, a Kirkland Democrat who is sponsoring HB 1594, billed the measures as necessary internet-age updates that will give local governments various tools to improve their records departments.

For example, McBride’s measure would study whether Washington should create a statewide internet portal to host public records. Utah already has such a portal.

“I think the thrust of these bills were to kind of bring us into the century,” McBride said.

McBride is cosponsor of HB 1595, proposed by state Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, which seeks to protect local governments from people who request massive amounts of unspecific public records.

That goal has been discussed for years in the Legislature.

McBride sponsored a bill in the 2016 legislative session that would have let local agencies limit time spent responding to public records requests as a way to restrict such requesters.

But the approach was changed this year after more input from public disclosure advocates.

Nealey’s new version would instead block the overbroad requesters by defining what an improper records request is. It also would let local agencies deny some auto-generated records requests and allow new charges for electronic records.

One provision of Nealey’s measure has drawn the most scrutiny: Agencies could opt to charge a flat fee of $2 for any record request instead of tabulating other available fees allowed in the law.

GOP state Rep. Mike Volz of Spokane — one of 22 Republicans to vote against Nealey’s bill — said he worries that the flat fee could start turning public records into a “profit center” rather just than a government transparency tool.

Rowland Thompson, executive director for the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, also takes issue with the fee, saying it’s too high for small disclosure requests that an average person makes.

They could “ask for a photocopied page and it’s $2,” he said.

However, both said they approved much of the rest of the policy in Nealey and McBride’s bills.