San Juan County outnumbers King County in public records requests

The rural San Juan Islands are leading the pack when it comes to record requests.

Data from a portion of 2017 show that San Juan County staff received roughly 22 times more public records requests and closed 15 times more public records requests per capita than urban King County.

Both municipalities documented requests from July 23, 2017 to Dec. 31, 2017, in identical reports mandated by the state. San Juan County is home to 16,715 people, according to the last census, while King County covers 2.18 million residents and includes the City of Seattle.

The onslaught of public records requests has forced San Juan County staff to hire more employees, find new ways to maintain and retain electronic files, and charge more for documents. Last year, the part-time public records clerk was moved to full time, and the deputy clerk was assigned as public records request backup.

According to County Councilman and Public Records Request Officer Jamie Stephens, they also implemented a new software system that stores records as well as dates of requests and completions.

In both San Juan and King counties, most of the requests in the 2017 period were fulfilled electronically as opposed to picking up documents in person.

According to an assessment from the state auditor’s office in 2016, technology advancements are one possible reason for the increase in requests. Now, governments have more digital documents to manage, and citizens expect readily available information.

Stephens said county staff are particularly burdened by broad demands, such as seeking all the correspondence between specified county employees over a period of time. As a result, employees were trained to limit emails so that expansive public records requests would not include unnecessary correspondence of electronic pleasantries, as opposed to work information. In both counties, the majority of requests in the 2017 reporting period was made by individuals as opposed to an organization’s staff, who regularly require public records for their jobs, like lawyers, journalists or insurers.

However, it was a company that made the most repeated requests during the 2017 reporting period in San Juan County. Requests from the national online legal research firm LexisNexis accounted for almost 17 percent of the submissions, and many were for car accident reports.

Stephens said county staff have a better handle on requests today than just two years ago. In 2016, three lawsuits against San Juan County involving public records requests were settled, and the plaintiffs were awarded money from the county. In one lawsuit, the plaintiff waited 300 days to have public records requests filled. Each of the three plaintiffs was represented by Nick Power, who is running for county prosecutor in November’s election.

Yet, in the 2017 reporting period, San Juan staff completed records requests faster than King County. According to the reports, San Juan County staff said they fulfilled 52 percent of requests within the state-mandated five days of receipt while King County staff said only 36 percent were completed in that time frame. If government staff cannot fill requests within five days, a letter stating a denial or completion estimation must be sent.

A growth in public records requests can be seen across Washington. According to the state auditor’s 2016 assessment, the average number of requests from state and local governments from 2011-15 grew 36 percent with the largest increase in the last two years.

The increase in requests has cost municipalities money. According to the state auditor, only $350,000 was recovered from the $60 million spent on public records requests within the municipalities that self-reported in 2016.

The additional costs have driven local governments to increase public records fees. Last October, county councilmembers voted to alter the fees to comply with changes in the state’s Public Records Act, including charging for electronic copies for the first time. The county now charges 15 cents per printed page, 10 cents per scanned records, 5 cents for every four electronic files or attachments and 10 cents per gigabyte of electronic documents. Also, a thumb drive of records now costs $4.94, and mailed records are charged the fee to mail them.

However, in 2017, it cost about $24 less to fulfill each request in San Juan, than in King. Overall, King County spent more fulfilling and managing requests than San Juan County. It cost almost $900,000 more to fulfill records in King County during the 2017 reporting period than in San Juan, including staff payment and legal reviews. The report states that King County spent $564,416 on staff who manage records during this time, compared to San Juan, which spent $74,975.

Despite the issues with the growing number of requests, Stephens emphasized the need for government transparency.

“These are the public’s records, and we try our best to provide them,” he said.