Op-ed from Rep. Terry Nealey: Finding the right balance on public records requests

We expect transparency in our government. Our state’s Public Records Act (PRA) is an important tool to ensure this expectation is met and public officials are held accountable for their actions.

The media, concerned citizens and even public officials have led the charge in making public records requests. Most of these requests are rooted in legitimate concerns or needs for specific information. However, there have been high-profile exceptions – requests that have required government entities to expend significant resources.

One of the early cases that brought this issue to the forefront was in Mesa, Washington. A couple made 172 public records requests over three years. The small city was not able to produce all of the records due to a lack of knowledge and personnel. A court ultimately ruled it must pay $246,000 in attorney fees and fines for failing to comply with the requests, which nearly led the city to financial ruin.

There are numerous examples of public records requests costing thousands of dollars and hours of time at the expense of taxpayers. The Washington State Department of Transportation recently added 11 FTEs just for this purpose. A line needs to be drawn on public records requests, but where that line should be is open to debate. Unfortunately, it’s an issue that has not received enough attention in the Legislature.

This year I joined my colleague Rep. Dean Takko in co-sponsoring House Bill 1684. The measure would allow agencies to assess a small charge for electronic public records. This would allow the PRA to grow with technology, while offering agencies an opportunity to recoup costs. The measure died in the House Appropriations Committee.

House Bill 1086 would allow agencies to assess a cost-recovery fee for the actual cost of providing a public record if the request was primarily for a commercial purpose. It would also establish a civil penalty for misrepresenting the purpose of a request to avoid paying the fee. The measure suffered the same fate as House Bill 1684.

These bills wouldn’t prevent all abuses of the system but they would make people and groups think twice about making certain public records requests, and allow agencies to recover some of the costs when requests are made.

Another emerging issue related to public records is body cameras on police officers. We know how valuable these videos can be in establishing facts, but what if certain images need to be redacted? One example would be if a police officer is called to a house and videos of children and personal belongings are captured. Should these images be public records? Some argue there should be a right to privacy, but it’s costly to redact these types of images.

Some law enforcement departments are going to remove all cameras because they cannot afford the expenses and personnel to respond to public records requests. Most of us agree the cameras can be useful and help protect both law enforcement and other citizens.

House Bill 1917 would address the use of body cameras. It would attempt to put parameters around the disclosure of videos and help protect citizens’ privacy. A lot of work is being done on this bill, but it has yet to move to the House floor.

There are several questions that need to be answered on this complex issue. We must find a balance of accommodating legitimate public records requests in timely and efficient ways, and dealing with unreasonable requests. It’s vital to protect the public’s access to its government, while making sure government isn’t unfairly burdened by frivolous requests.

Rep. Terry Nealey represents the 16th Legislative District.

State Representative Terry Nealey, 16th Legislative District
404 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
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