State and local governments in Washington spent more than $60 million in a recent 12-month period complying with public-records requests, a new report says.
OLYMPIA — State and local governments in Washington spent more than $60 million in a recent 12-month period complying with public-records requests, according to a new report.
That cost, along with an increase in requests and the explosion of digital data, is making it more difficult for state and local governments to provide records, according to the report by the Washington state Auditor’s Office.
Typical requests include government records like emails, police reports, meeting minutes and contracts.
When Washington’s Public Records Act was enacted in 1972, such technologies as email, cellphones, police dashboard cameras and computer databases didn’t exist.
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Those advances, along with the explosion of information and costs to store, secure and organize data, have increased the burden on agencies, according to the report, which was released Monday.
“Such challenges, if not addressed, may undermine the original intent of public records laws and the provision of essential government services,” according to the report’s executive summary.
But Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said he worries that the report could be used to weaken the state’s records laws.
Nixon cites the report’s suggestions that government agencies be able to charge for records, or consider distinctions that might classify some requests as burdensome.
“The records are owned by the people, and we have a right to see them,” said Nixon. Government entities can also better use existing tools to reduce their costs, he added.
According to the report, more than 90 percent of the cost to government to fulfill public-records is paying for staff to find, review and prepare the records.
Meanwhile, between 2011 and mid-2015, the average number of records requests increased by more than one-third among governments that returned a survey for the report.
Among other recommendations, the report suggests that governments disclose more records to begin with, reducing the need for requests in the first place. Nixon said this could work with records such as government ordinances, resolutions and building permits.
Another idea is to create an alternative dispute process for disagreements over records, which could keep some cases out of court and reduce litigation costs.
State legislators should also make records laws less complex to ease the process, according to the report.
Meanwhile, a group of stakeholders is working to find ways to draft model public-records laws to help small towns and government entities better manage public-records law, according to Nixon.
Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia and chairman of the House State Government Committee, described the challenges as “an issue we’ve been fighting for at least 10 years.”
Despite proposed bills and work groups, there hasn’t yet been consensus among lawmakers, government agencies and advocacy groups such as the Coalition for Open Government to make major fixes, Hunt said.
“I realize it’s a huge problem,” said Hunt, adding later: “It’ll be an issue in the 2017 Legislature again, for sure.”
For its report, the Auditor’s Office surveyed 2,363 state and local governments — 923 of whom participated. Since most larger government entities responded, the survey captured data for most of Washington’s residents, according to the report.
For instance, the responding towns and cities represent nearly four out of five Washington residents living in such areas.