Nealey’s public records reform bills receive governor’s signature

Several years of work by Rep. Terry Nealey to find the right formula to reduce abusive, excessive public records requests while preserving open access to government records came to a culmination today (Tuesday) with Gov. Jay Inslee’s signing of two Public Records Act reform bills.

“I’m pleased that input and involvement on this issue by local governments, open government advocates, editorial page editors, the news media and citizens across Washington have brought us together today for the signing of this legislation,” said Nealey, R-Dayton. “These bills will help to reduce costly vexatious requests while improving public access to our state and local public records.”

House Bill 1594, co-sponsored by Nealey (Rep. Joan McBride, R-Kirkland, is the prime sponsor), creates a grant program to help local governments, particularly smaller agencies, pay for training to better manage records. It would also allow the Attorney General’s office to assist local governments in complying with requests, and create a study to explore the creation of a statewide online portal for public records access.

House Bill 1595 allows agencies to charge a nominal fee for providing copies of electronically produced public records. The charge may include the actual costs for the electronic production or file transfer of the record. Or it could include up to:

  • 10 cents per page scanned into an electronic format;
  • 5 cents for every four electronic attachments uploaded to an electronic delivery system; and
  • 10 cents per gigabyte transmitting records electronically.

An agency may charge a flat fee of $2 as an alternative to the default fees. Agencies may also waive any fee for a request if the agency determines the fee is unwarranted.

In addition. the bill provides that public records request must be for an identifiable record. Nonspecific requests for all or most agency records would not be considered valid. Agencies could also deny multiple, automatically computer-generated “bot” requests that come from the same source within a 24-hour period if it causes excessive interference with essential functions of the agency.

“In this digital age, there has been an explosion of electronic public records requests for free, including from ‘vexatious requestors’ — people who have little or no legitimate interest in the records themselves, other than to force agencies to spend precious time and limited resources trying to fulfill the requests. These abusers know that if they do not receive a timely response, the responding agency could be liable for lawsuits and even damages paid to the requestors,” noted Nealey. 

“These requests gum up the system, making it harder for governments to timely respond to legitimate requests — effectively shutting the rest of us out. That’s why we’ve long needed reforms to the state’s 45-year-old Public Records Act,” added Nealey.

A recent Washington State Auditor’s study revealed state and local governments spent more than $60 million in one year to fulfill 285,000 requests — nearly all of which were electronic records requests — and more than $10 million from litigation fees. Only 1 percent of the costs were recovered from the original law’s fee structure, which allows governments to charge 15 cents per photocopy page of paper records to help recover costs. Nealey said that has left taxpayers to cover the remaining costs.

“It’s been a difficult balancing act because even the smallest reforms have drawn criticism as an attack against public access to government records, which has never been our intention. That’s why it was important to bring all parties together to find a workable solution that will assist agencies in providing public records, reduce abusive requests that cost taxpayers millions of dollars, and create greater access to government records,” said Nealey. “That’s what we have with these two bills signed into law today.”

Both bills take effect in July.

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PHOTO: Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, and Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, watch as Gov. Jay Inslee signs their Public Records Act reform measures, House Bills 1594 and 1595, into law. The pair worked together to author bipartisan legislation that seeks to reduce abusive, excessive records requests while helping local governments provide improved access to public records.


Washington State House Republican Communications