Bills in state legislature seek to rein in records "fishing"
Washington's public records act says government documents are available for anyone to scrutinize. But now cities, school districts, ports and prison are pushing the Legislature to allow governments to charge higher copying fees, make more documents confidential — even seek court orders to bar requesters intent on "annoying, tormenting or terrorizing" government workers.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Proposals on public disclosureHERE ARE SOME of the bills being pushed by government officials who claim they're swamped by public-records requests.
HB: 1316: Allows agencies to get court injunctions against people who make records requests with the intent of "annoying, tormenting or terrorizing" government employees.
HB: 1317: Exempts from public disclosure personal information about law-enforcement employees, such as birth dates, photographs and addresses.
SB 5250: Increases cost for photocopies of public records to 25 cents a page, up from 15 cents now.
SB 5251: Allows governments to charge for all photocopies made to fulfill a records request, even if the requester doesn't want most of the pages.
Washington's Public Records Act says government documents are available for anyone to scrutinize. From the mayor's e-mails to the governor's travel expenses. All you have to do is ask.
But some people are asking way too much, flooding agencies with costly demands, in some cases just to harass public officials — or at least that's the story being told to the Legislature by cities, school districts, ports and prisons.
They're pushing bills to allow governments to charge higher copying fees, make more documents confidential — even seek court orders to bar requesters' intent in "annoying, tormenting or terrorizing" government workers.
To make their case, officials offer examples such as convicted arsonist Allan Parmelee, who has filed more than 800 public-disclosure requests from behind bars.
But other requests cited by government agencies as onerous appear to come from people using the records law as it was intended — to hold government accountable. They include a woman fighting the Everett School District's treatment of her autistic son and a businessman in Prosser who says he's investigating corruption.
Open-records watchdogs say government lobbyists are using a few extreme examples to push for overly broad restrictions and new ways to stonewall legitimate requests.
For example, what began as a proposal by Attorney General Rob McKenna to allow prisons to halt abusive requests from inmates like Parmelee has been expanded into a separate bill that would let any government agency seek a court injunction against anyone whose requests are deemed harassing.
"Any requester who was just a little too persistent would have an injunction filed against them," said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit supported by media organizations including The Seattle Times.
"Agencies that don't want to disclose the information because they know they've done something wrong or it's politically embarrassing — they absolutely will use it."
Parmelee, an inmate at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center, has become the poster boy for those pushing new restrictions on records requests.
Serving a 24-year sentence for torching cars belonging to lawyers representing his ex-wife and a roommate's girlfriend, Parmelee has filed requests that prosecutors and prison officials say are burdensome, and at times, intimidating. For example, he's asked for photographs, work schedules and other personal information about prison guards and prosecutors.
In one case, Parmelee won a $19,000 judgment when the Department of Corrections (DOC) illegally delayed turning over records. Prison officials later intercepted a letter Parmelee wrote to his brother, in which he suggested starting a records-request business "to reap the bountiful penalty awards so easy to get" when agencies slip up.
Parmelee's attorney, Michael Kahrs, would not comment on his client's motives, but said the proposal to restrict inmate requests is unfair.
"There are problems within the DOC that only the inmates can bring to light," he said.
King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told lawmakers at a hearing last month the law as written "encourages and incentivizes the extreme abuse of the Public Records Act for harassment, for intimidation by people of ill intent."
Satterberg and other law-enforcement leaders support the court-injunction proposal, as well as a bill to block disclosure of "personal information" that could be used to locate or identify law-enforcement employees, including photographs and birth dates.
Parmelee aside, some of the other cases cited by government lobbyists are not as simple as they suggest.
When asked for specific examples of onerous disclosure requests, supporters of the bills pointed to the town of Prosser and the Everett School District.
In both cases, citizens asked for massive amounts of documents. But they had understandable reasons. And in both cities, the government is accused of failing to obey the public-records law.
In Prosser, there is no doubt that civic gadfly Larry Loges has been a major hassle for town employees. He's made 129 public-disclosure requests over the past two years. The town last year estimated Loges' requests have cost at least $75,000 and more than 100 working days for staff.
"We have limited resources," said City Manager Charlie Bush. "The volume and depth of those requests had gotten to the point where it was making it hard to be responsive."
Prosser officials want to be able to charge higher copying fees, or at least require Loges to narrow his requests.
Loges, who owns a mobile-home park, claims city inspectors have singled him out because most of his renters are Hispanic.
Loges says he's investigating "arrogance, bigotry and corruption" in the town of 5,000. "If you are one of the good old boys and in with the community, you can do anything and get away with it."
At first, Loges asked for records related to his own property disputes with the town. He then turned to other subjects — such as his theory that a bed-and-breakfast owned by the mayor is illegally using a private well.
Last year, police seized a trailer Loges had painted with a message mocking the mayor for a plan to spend $2 million on a tourist attraction — a giant wine glass. The town gave back the trailer after Loges got a court order, said his lawyer, Tim Carlson.
Loges has sued Prosser, claiming the town illegally delayed providing many documents. In October, a judge agreed the town had violated the open-records law in nine instances, leaving the city open to possible fines.
The judge rejected a dozen other violations claimed by Loges.
The Everett School District says it, too, has been burdened by unreasonably broad records requests.
Mary Waggoner, the district spokeswoman, said the district supports the public-records law. But, she said, it gets expensive when people go on "a blanket, open fishing expedition that involves a lot of staff time."
In one case, a man asked for thousands of pages about a plan to build a new school, but never came to look at the records.
Howard Baker made the request because the district was considering condemning his house to make way for the school. He says he didn't look at the records because it didn't seem worth it after the district sent him a letter saying many of the documents he wanted were confidential.
Meanwhile, the district dropped its new-school plan.
Everett's other major records fight involves a mother challenging the school district's refusal to place her son, who has autism, in a regular classroom at their neighborhood middle school. The district said the boy should be in a special-education classroom.
Jessica Olson said she asked for documents to prove officials were making decisions about the placement of her son, Tommy, and other special-education students — without consulting parents as required by law.
She filed a records request to review all e-mails and notes sent and received over a two-week period in 2007 by nine district officials, including the superintendent.
After Olson refused to narrow her request, the district responded that it would take six to nine months to produce all the records, then demanded she pay $1,275 to look at the documents, according to a lawsuit Olson filed.
State law prohibits agencies from charging fees to inspect public records. (They can charge 15 cents a page for photocopies.)
School districts are supporting a bill that could make such inspection fees legal.
Ramsey Ramerman, an attorney who represents cities in record disputes, said his clients support public disclosure, but are troubled by large requests that eat up staff time. He noted that some other states allow agencies to charge for the time it takes employees to produce public records.
"Should taxpayers have to pay that cost or should requesters have to pay that cost? It's a matter of drawing the line," said Ramerman.But Nixon argues that transparency in government is too important to be weakened.
"We can't consider it to be an optional or secondary thing. It's core," Nixon said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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