Contributed image/San Juan County San Juan County public records requests can be submitted at www.sanjuanco.com/684/Records-Center.

State and local governments address public record requests

Electronic public records requests are free, so the public has been requesting more.

“If people want a printed copy, it costs $.15 per page,” said San Juan County Councilmember Jamie Stephens. “Now people ask for a lot more and they are delivered electronically. That’s where we run into problems.”

Throughout the summer to mid-fall, Stephens was part of a work group to study and address the state’s records request increase. The work group was comprised of about 35 elected officials, as well as citizens representing organizations for open government and information technology.

As a result, two public request bills were recently introduced in the Washington state House: HB1595 to charge the same for printed and electronic copies; and HB 1594, to allow the attorney general’s office to assist smaller agencies in filing, as well as training staff.

According to a 2016 report from the state auditor’s office, only $350,000 was recovered from the $60 million spent on public records requests last year, as self-reported by state government agencies.

Stephens said the county’s part-time public records clerk was moved to full-time in 2016 to handle the records request increase. The county’s deputy clerk was also assigned as public records request backup.

County Deputy Prosecutor Amy Vira trained each department on the record request response process, as department officials often help to find information requested from their records.

Of the last four lawsuits filed against the county for extended wait times on public records requests, three were settled in 2016 and one in 2012. County code states that records requesters will receive a written response within five business days, notifying then that the request is complete, denied, or of the estimated completion time. Some requests involved in these lawsuits took up to nine months to be fulfilled.

“Our objective is to get people the records they want,” said San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord, who emphasized requesters should follow county code and contact the public records request office about their wait before filing a lawsuit.

At the Jan. 24 San Juan County Council meeting, three amendments were added to the county’s public records procedure to comply with technology changes and state law, but these did not address the increase in record requests.

“Changes were made so county officials are clear on their obligations and citizens know what to expect,” said Gaylord.

The changes:

• Request people seek records through the county’s website. If they don’t have internet access,forms are available at the courthouse.

• Remove a section that requires county officials to continuously update completed records requests.

• Place responsibility on county officials to determine whether public records requests are for commercial purposes. Before, requesters who said they weren’t using information to solicit business, were believed. The change was prompted by a 2016 Washington Court of Appeals decision. If county officials deem the purpose is for commercial use, the information won’t be released.

“How are we going to analyze that purpose, and how much information is enough information?”asked Vira at the Jan. 24 council meeting, in regard to determining commercial purposes. As of that meeting, the county had yet to make such a determination on a public records request.