New bipartisan legislation in the state House would make it more expensive for the public to access government records. It would, for the first time, set prices for providing electronic copies of records.
The public would pay more to access government records in Washington, under new bipartisan legislation that would allow cities, counties and government agencies to charge for providing electronic copies of records.
The bill, introduced Wednesday, is co-sponsored by 23 representatives — 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats — nearly one-fourth of the state House.
Government agencies are allowed to charge the “actual cost” of providing copies of public records but defines that “actual cost” only for paper copies. The bill, HB 1595, would do the same for electronic copies.
Agencies can charge up to 15 cents per page for providing paper copies of government records. The bill would allow them to charge 10 cents per page for scanned electronic copies, 10 cents per minute of audio and video recordings, 40 cents per 25 email attachments and 10 cents per gigabyte of electronic records.
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Public-records requests, frequently used by the media and lawyers, often run to thousands of pages of documents, allowing small per-page costs to amount to significant fees.
The bill would also allow agencies to charge a “customized service charge” if fulfilling a records request would require staffing or resources “not normally available” to the government agency.
The bill specifies no price limit for this “customized service charge” but says it cannot exceed the actual cost of providing the records.
The bill’s sponsors said their intent is not to obstruct the public’s access to records but to update the law to keep pace with technology and to blunt the effect of so-called “vexatious requesters,” people who make public-records requests to force agencies to spend time and resources.
They pointed to a 2016 report from the state Auditor’s Office, in which government agencies self-reported their annual costs of complying with public-records requests at more than $60 million.
Those government agencies said they recouped just $350,000 of that $60 million, according to the auditor’s report, primarily because the law does not allow them to bill for staff time spent searching for and reviewing records.
“Our legislation would enable an agency to study its actual costs of making and preparing for delivery electronic copies of documents for a requester, and then charge a modest fee based on those copying costs,” said Rep. Terry Nealy, R-Dayton, one of the bill’s lead sponsors. “We think this will reduce vexatious requests while preserving access with an updated fee system.”
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said his organization supported the framework of the bill — allowing agencies to charge for electronic copies — but weren’t sure about the prices and some of the language.
The bill, he noted, would keep in place the prohibition on charging for searching and reviewing documents — except for the “customized service charge,” an area where Nixon said his organization would like to see the language refined to be less subjective.
“We’re generally comfortable with the principles,” Nixon, a former state legislator and current Kirkland City Council member said. “Now we’re down to the point of negotiating the fine details.”
The bill also specifies that public-records request must be for specific, identifiable records, and cannot be for “all records owned, used or retained by an agency.”
It would allow agencies to deny a “bot request,” one automatically generated by a computer program.
A companion bill, HB 1594, would allow the state Attorney General’s Office to assist smaller cities and government agencies in complying with public-records requests and would provide training in how to better manage records.