State lawmakers are exploring a plan that could limit how governments respond to requests for public documents, allowing them to get a court order if they can prove that a request creates a “significant burden.”
The measure discussed by lawmakers Tuesday would also permit agencies to adopt policies limiting the amount of time devoted to responding to records requests.
Some government leaders pointed to anecdotal cases of individuals who repeatedly filed broad and onerous requests that consumed large chunks of staff time. Some appeared to have been simply trying to harass an agency due to a grudge.
“There needs to be a remedy for the harassing requests made for the purpose of slowing down county government,” said Kevin Bouchey, a Yakima County commissioner.
But open-government advocates said there are already methods to deal with abusive requesters. Rowland Thompson, who represents the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, said agencies can already seek clarification from requestors to help identify the proper records. And he said agencies can disclose the records in batches, forcing the document-seeker to take action to keep the request active.
Others contended that the proposal would allow government officials to avoid the disclosure of records when someone is investigating wrongdoing.
“You’re really flipping the public records act on its head and creating a presumption that is very difficult to prove in court,” said Joan Mell, an attorney in Pierce County.
The bill is sponsored by Sens. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, Dan Swecker, R- Rochester, and Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island. Lawmakers did not vote on the issue during Tuesday’s committee hearing.
The proposed law does not define what a “significant burden” is.
Senate lawmakers separately examined a bill that would allow agencies to charge fees for searching and processing records for commercial requests. Government officials said they were constantly responding to requests from data-mining firms.
Industry officials testified that public records law should not treat requestors differently and argued that data firms may actually save agencies money because they serve many customers who might otherwise be making identical requests for the information.