Snoqualmie, North Bend update Public Records policies; could result in longer wait times for citizens

Following a similar change by the City of North Bend in early June, the Snoqualmie City Council approved some changes to its Public Records Requests (PRRs) policy. Both cities were able to make the changes due amendments to Washington’s Public Records Act in recent years.

The law allow cities to set public records rules that establish costs to produce records and the ‘reasonable’ amount of hours staff should spend on PRRs so as not to interfere with other essential agency functions.

In recent years both North Bend and Snoqualmie experienced spikes in the number and scope of PRRs. In 2018 Snoqualmie reported spending 724 staff hours and 41.5 city attorney hours on 144 public records requests. [Those estimates do not reflect additional IT department time.] Approximately 60% of those estimated hours were spent on multiple, complex requests from three citizens.

To date, there have been 82 requests in 2019, with over 30 of those coming since mid June. In contrast, the city had 37 requests in 2016 and 44 in 2017.

Per the new resolution passed by the Snoqualmie City Council, the intent Washington’s Public Records Act is to provide “full public access to
public records pertaining to the conduct of government, respect individuals’ privacy rights, protect public records from damage or disorganization, and to prevent excessive interference with other essential functions of the government agency holding the records.”

Snoqualmie’s new PRR rules limit the time the city clerk can spend on records requests to 16 hours per month. Designees from 8 other city departments can each contribute 8 hours per month to help with PRRs. Under North Bend’s updated policy, the city clerk can spend 12 hours per month on PRRs and public works and community development departments can each contribute 4 hours.

At Monday’s Snoqualmie city council meeting, Councilmember Shepard read into the record a letter from the Washington Coalition for Open Government which opposed the reduction of staff time for PRRs. Shepard also had numerous concerns with the new PRR rules, including the hour limits, the ban of phones, cameras and computers when personally inspecting records, and possible limitations for those with disabilities.

Toby Nixon, President of WA COG [via email] explained, “WCOG’s position is that agencies must budget at least enough resources to meet the typical demand for public records – they cannot artificially starve that function and cause unreasonable delay in the processing of requests. Agencies must monitor their performance on handling records requests (response time) and ensure that sufficient resources are applied to keep up with the typical level of demand. If that monitoring shows that they are not making sufficient resources available to keep up with typical demand over time, then additional resources must be added.”

According to North Bend City Clerk Susie Oppedal, WA COG did not reach out with concerns over North Bend’s public records policy changes.

According to Snoqualmie City Attorney Bob Sterbank, the assertion that that the city has to use the highpoint of time spent on PRRs – which has been about 172 hours per month for the past year – to establish the monthly hourly quota has ‘no basis in the law.’ He explained the council’s role is to set policy and give direction to staff as to what is a reasonable amount of time – based on resources available and balanced with their other essential duties.

In contrast, Nixon said Snoqualmie should be budgeting hours to meet the current PRR demand, tracking it over time and adjusting it as time changes. The city, though, maintains it does not have the resources to hire more employees to deal with historic number of requests.

Sterbank said going forward under the new rules, staff will have to give requestors reasonable estimates on the time it will take to respond their PRRs based on balancing ‘no excessive interference.’ He went on to say if the requestor disagrees with that time estimate, there is a procedure under the [Public Records] Act for them to bring that to the attention of the court.

City Clerk Jodi Warren said the city is working to get new software (approved in the 2019/20 budget) implemented, which will aid in getting ‘everything we can’ on the city’s website and available to the public. She said currently all minutes, ordinances and resolutions are indexed on the website – with contracts and agreements from the past 1-2 years also uploaded.

Warren said getting every city document to the website, though, would take more than her lifetime because the city was established in 1903 and has hundreds of thousands of paper documents archived. She explained emails are the largest request she deals with and that it is problematic to to index those to the website as they all have to be examined for public records act exemptions and privacy requirements.

During council discussion about the new PRR rules, Councilmember Jeans – who said the reduction of time for PRRs on its face was ‘offensive to the public’ even if it could be justified – made a motion to increase the city clerk hour limit to 30, but he could not a get a second for his motion.

Councilmember Shepard also made a motion to remove the language forbidding cell phones while examining documents, but she also could not get a second for her motion.

Councilmember Holloway requested staff monitor PRR submissions and adjust the time limits later if they aren’t working.

Councilmember Mayhew described the new rules as a reasonable attempt to answer and balance the load, saying they would re-look at the rules if they don’t play out as expected. He noted that requestors will still get records, but may have to wait longer.

The new PRR ordinance and rules passed by a vote of 4-2 with Councilmember Laase – who described public records as a ‘valuable part of government’ – and Councilmember Shepard voting no.

The new rules go into effect immediately. New costs for public records requests also were included, which charge requestors for staff time spent emailing, uploading, scanning and copying files. The associated hourly rate for that work is $67.57, which was described an average of the three hourly salaries of the city staff most likely to respond to PRRs.

Snoqualmie last amended its public record request policy in 2004. A public hearing on the PRR charges was held at the start of Monday’s meeting, with multiple residents speaking out against the new rules. One resident attributed the recent spike in PRRs to distrust and said the city should be opening up, not closing down.

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