Snoqualmie City Council approves new rules for public record request policies

The rules place limitatons on time spent on records and updates billing methods.

The Snoqualmie City Council approved the adoption of new rules for the city’s public record request policies and billing methods in a 4-2 vote at a meeting on July 22.

Resolution 1501 applies to requests for public records submitted pursuant to the Public Records Act (PRA), Chapter 42.56 RCW. The rules place limitations on the amount of time spent by the city each month on records requests and updates the prices for electronic copies of documents.

By adopting the ordinance for section 2.50 of the Snoqualmie Municipal Code, the city council has determined the “maintenance” of identifying information for public records would “unduly burden and interfere” with city operations, according to the Snoqualmie rules document. The city’s existing rules were last amended in 2004.

The Finance and Administration Committee determined a monthly hours limitation — 16 hours per month for the public records officer and 8 hours per month for department-designated staff — at a June 4 regular committee meeting.

Limiting staff time is partially due to the city’s vast increase in the volume and complexity of public records requests since 2017. Snoqualmie received 37 requests in 2016 and 44 in 2017, followed by a spike of 144 requests in 2018. There have been 74 requests so far in 2019, according to a staff report by city attorney Bob Sterbank.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government expressed concern about Snoqualmie’s public records changes. President Toby Nixon sent a letter to the city council earlier this month, which was read aloud by Councilmember Peggy Shepard.

“We strongly recommend increasing the 16-hour limit to at least 172 hours per month so that the city will not be accused of knowingly and intentionally starving its essential public records function of demonstrably and admittedly necessary resources,” Nixon said.

Washington COG notes that Warren told the Valley Record in an earlier story that the average amount of time the city spends processing requests is 172-hours per month. Nixon suggested to postpone adoption of the rules in order to make necessary adjustments.

Despite the suggestion, the resolution was approved by the city council.

Nixon is also a councilmember in Kirkland, one of the first cities to adopt hourly limits for its staff. Sterbank said each city makes those choices based on the amount of resources available.

“The 172 hours that Mr. Nixon refers to the city clerk mentioning has no basis in the law or fact,” Sterbank said. “The council needs only to choose something that is reasonable.”

Snoqualmie resident Richard Scheel (also Councilmember Shepard’s spouse) explained that the scope of requests in recent years have increased due to distrust by citizens. He said 16 hours per month is not enough.

“It is important to respond to that with openness, not by closing off access to public records,” Scheel said.

City clerk Jodi Warren also works as the Snoqualmie records officer to coordinate and fulfill the records requests. The most common public records requests are for emails and it takes time to redact sensitive information, she said.

Warren listed minutes, agendas, ordinances, resolutions, contracts and agreements as just some of the documents already available on the city website. Easements and property information are located on the King County website.

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.

“Actual cost” would allow the city to charge the amount of staff time used specifically for copying and sending the public records, according to RCW 42.56.120. 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.

“It is not all of the time spent by either the city clerk or other people in finding records or redacting them or doing privilege review, it is only the actual cost of uploading them or putting them on a CD and mailing them,” Sterbank said.

Shepard recommended removal of section O from the rules, yet the motion died for lack of a second. Section O states that possession of cameras, mobile phones, laptops, tablets or other electronic devices is prohibited in the room where public records are made available for inspection. Record requestors must either write down information or rely on memory in order to avoid payment options.

Sterbank argued that removing cameras and phones protects records from being electronically copied and manipulated. The purpose of the PRA is protection of records, he said.

Councilmember Bob Jeans suggested twice to increase hours for staff to work on records requests. He was unsuccessful both times.

“It may be in some cases that fully performing the cities functions and providing records requests means one or the other takes a little bit longer,” Sterbank said.