Public records bill could have unintended consequences

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House Bill 1595, allowing government agencies to charge for electronic public records, set a fee schedule, and allow a service charge for time-consuming records requested, passed the state House of Representatives recently in a 75-22 votes.

The argument for the bill is compelling, if it’s just from a bottom line standpoint concerning staff time and resources. The city of Othello spent $35,797 and Quincy spent $16,407 in litigation fees because of apparent fallout surrounding records requests, according to a Tuesday article in the Columbia Basin Herald. We can see why there’s cause for concern.

For the greater good of society and in the interest of open government, we have some concerns when any changes are made to the state Open Public Records Act. While local government agencies work diligently to follow the act and most often, quickly respond to the newspaper’s requests, adding more regulations could have unintended consequences. Our concerns include the public’s access to information could be limited because of cost constraints and possible inconsistency in carrying out new pieces of the law.

On a related note, House Bill 1594, created to train administrators who handle public records requests and require them to contract and clarify requests, also passed the House recently with a 79-18 vote. This bill requires staff training for public records officers, which tells us there are already concerns statewide with how agencies are handling records requests. There’s clearly a need for more uniformity and training in responding to and/or processing public records requests. So why add more red tape to an already problematic situation?

We are also concerned because more rules and regulations could mean the people who aren’t abusing the law are impacted. Adjusting to new rules takes time and we are hoping the speed and efficiency of the public’s requests aren’t impacted if the bill becomes law.

The new fee would be 10 cents per scanned page, 10 cents per minute of audio and video recording, 40 cents for every 25 electronic attachments that are uploaded, and 10 cents per gigabyte for sending records electronically.

We do think the section of the bill that allows agencies to reject automatically generated (or bot) requests has merit and should remain intact.

The bill is now headed to the Senate for consideration. We would ask the Senate to consider unintended consequences of changes to the act.

— Editorial Board

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