Public records requests are a time-consuming process. Since 2018, one public records request has taken a total of 147 hours of staff time, and it is still in the works to date.
Facing rapid growth in request submissions, the city of Snoqualmie is working on updating its public records policy to improve the work flow of records requests and prevent that work from interfering with government operations.
According to RCW 42.56.100, agencies that oversee public access of records should adopt procedures to “prevent excessive interference with other essential functions of the agency.” The Finance and Administration Council Committee is working to address public records work, because the city says fulfilling public records requests is taking up large amounts of staff time that would otherwise be spent on city operations work.
The Public Record Act ordinance is the first time the city is amending its policy since 2004. This ordinance proposes placing limitations on the amount of time spent per month on public records requests and updating the pricing model to charge for electronic copies of documents.
The update would also expand the staff working on records by designating one person from each of the eight city departments as additional records request staff.
While the exact hour limitations have not yet been decided, putting caps on staff time is being considered due to the significant increase in requests the city has seen and the amount of work required to fulfill the requests. Snoqualmie received 37 requests in 2016 and 44 in 2017 before a jump to 144 total requests in 2018, some of which are still being worked on.
As of June 3, more than 50 requests have been submitted in 2019.
In addition to managing her responsibilities as city clerk, Jodi Warren also works as the Snoqualmie Records Officer to coordinate and fulfill the records requests. She said a large volume of requests can end up taking a significant amount of time and effort to complete, requiring staff to request files from an off-site archive or to have the IT department pull down thousands of emails over multiple years to identify what is relevant to a request. She estimates the average amount of records work per month is about 172 hours.
“The city’s intent is to be as transparent as possible, and it is our intent to provide documents to our citizens that they request so we embrace the open Public Record Act,” she said. “It is our goal to be very responsive. Lately, though, it has really been impeding the ability to do other important work here.”
Pulling from the off-site archive (based in SeaTac) also racks up a monetary cost to the city. Warren said retrieving bank statements from the archive costs the city $600 for one request.
Vague or general submissions such as ‘all email correspondence between two city officials across 2016 and 2017’ can take tens of hours to pull the information and prepare it for the person who made the request.
“In order for the city to do their due diligence, we have to go through each and every individual email — sometimes there are thousands — to make sure there isn’t any attorney client-privilege or (if some emails are) exempt by law. If there is, we have to redact and create an exemption log,” Warren said.
The submission that has taken 147 hours is a request for all of the documents and emails over four years regarding the investigation and audit of a consultant conducted by the city of Snoqualmie. It is still being worked on today.
City Attorney Bob Sterbank said the breadth of the request is so large that the IT staff had to search their database and dump thousands of emails that may or may not have anything to do with the investigation.
“Because of the exhaustive number of emails, we are talking thousands and thousands and thousands,” Warren said of the emails. “Every single email has to be opened, and you have to go to the end of it to make sure there is no attorney-client privilege info in there.”
Often, it’s not clear to the public how much work goes into a public records request.
“(The person who made the request) probably had no idea how much work the request was going to generate,” Sterbank added.
Warren and Sterbank couldn’t predict if the proposed changes would slow down the pace of their work, but did say it would depend on the amount and breadth of the requests. The exact amount of hours the city clerk and each department representative would be limited to has not yet been decided.
Sterbank also said the city would have a rate they charge for collecting documents and uploading them to a cloud-based system. The state Legislature passed Engrossed House Bill 1595 in 2017, which allows cities to charge a small fee for electronic copies of records as well as a charge for requests that need IT staff time to complete.
RCW 42.56.120 outlines three options the city has to charge for records, actual costs, default fees, or a flat fee of $2 for the first delivery. Snoqualmie currently charges using the default method for physical records only. Sterbank said that method would not change, but electronic copies may be charged based on the actual cost method.
“Actual cost” would allow the city to charge the actual cost of staff time used specifically for copying and sending the public records. That price would be made up of the per page cost of the copier, the cost of electronic production or file transfer and use of cloud-based storage, or the cost of transmission if the records are delivered on a physical device.
The Public Records Act ordinance will be discussed at the next Finance and Administration Council Committee meeting on June 18. If the committee determines specific details and recommends it to the city council, a public hearing will be held before any action is taken.
Warren said the ordinance would have to be introduced at a city council meeting first, and a vote would take place the following meeting after a public hearing.
Both Warren and Sterbank reiterated that the city’s goal is to be as transparent as possible and responsive to records requests, and the proposed ordinance would help staff balance that responsibility with the rest of their duties. The city is also looking to move their back-end systems to an enterprise management system that would make searching for documents more efficient, Sterbank said.