Coalition for Open Government concerned by Snoqualmie public records changes

Public hearing on proposal slated for July 22.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government (COG) has concerns with the proposed changes to the Snoqualmie public records request process. The requests funnel in from citizens, media and other agencies guaranteed access to public documents by law.

Due to an increasing number of public records requests, the city of Snoqualmie has proposed changes to its public records policy in an attempt to prevent the many hours it takes to gather records from interfering with other city priorities, the city said.

The changes are the first amending the city policy since 2004, and would update the pricing model to charge for electronic copies of documents and limit time spent filling requests. Snoqualmie introduced the proposed changes on July 8 and a public hearing will be held on Monday, July 22, at 7 p.m.

Washington COG learned of the city council’s proposed changes. And when the organization discovered the proposed changes were on the city council agenda, it prompted them to reach out, said Washington COG president Toby Nixon. Washington COG advocates for the public’s right to access government information and is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit that works to strengthen Washington’s open government laws.

In an email sent to councilmembers, the group outlined some of its “most significant concerns” with the city’s proposal. A potential cap of 16 hours per month spent on processing requests was the first on the list. Washington COG notes that Jodi Warren, the Snoqualmie records officer, told the Valley Record in an earlier story that the average amount of time the city spends processing requests is 172-hours per month.

“We remind you that the PRA (Public Records Act) requires the city to provide the ‘fullest assistance to inquirers and the most timely possible action on requests for information,’” Nixon wrote in an email. He is also a Kirkland City Council member.

Nixon continued that handling public records requests is an essential function of every agency, and that “artificially limiting employee work time for handling requests to less than 10 percent of the historical average time is inconsistent with the requirements.”

It could bring about lawsuits, he said, for providing an unreasonable estimate of time required to respond to public records requests. And the Washington COG “strongly” recommended Snoqualmie’s city council instead increase the proposed hour limit to 172 hours per month, to prevent the city from neglecting its public records obligations.

“The right answer to your problem is to increase staffing, not to unreasonably delay responding to PRA requests,” Nixon wrote. “We strongly recommend that the city establish a mechanism to monitor the demand for records and the performance of the public records staff so that the resources allocated can be periodically adjusted to meet the typical level of demand and to maintain the level of service expected by your citizens. We also strongly recommend that the city properly organize your records, including indexing to the maximum extent feasible, to enable faster responses to requests.”

Nixon said by phone that there are state grant programs the city could apply for to help fund additional staffers, devoted to the cause of records requests. One of them Washington COG helped to develop a couple years ago.

Other concerns of Washington COG noted in the email is a ban on camera, mobile phones, laptops, tablets or other electronic devices, when inspecting records. While agencies are entitled to money for copying records, they can not restrain requesters from making their own documentation and force them to rely on the agency.

They too have concerns on provisions that would serialize requests from the same individual and prohibiting oral requests, which could be seen as discriminating against those who are blind, or with limited English language competence.

Washington COG said it hopes the city will postpone the adoption of the rules and that the “necessary adjustments can be made,” the email ended. “We would gladly work with your city attorney to update the draft to reflect these recommendations.”

The city of Snoqualmie did not respond to repeated requests for comment as of time of publication. The Record planned to ask if the COG email correspondence altered the proposed rules, or if the adoption of the new provisions will be delayed.

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