JACK MAYNE: Should tax dollars be spent on unreasonable records requests?

Commentary by Senior Writer Jack Mayne

(click “Play” button to hear audio version:)

Do South King County taxpayers want thousands of their tax dollars spent to find, read and assemble information sought as a fishing expedition by some person or organization hoping to find anything that they could use for some personal reason?

That is happening every day in Burien, Des Moines, Normandy Park and SeaTac. These searches of complex computer records are required upon demand from any citizen as part of Washington’s public disclosure laws. Those laws were passed more than 40 years ago to inform citizens of the activities of elected officials at all ranks, including the members of our city councils and school boards.

Those original laws were written when a public records request meant a simple search of a file folder or two.

Today, most activity takes place on a computer, either as email or as some other type of textual correspondence. That means where once people had a verbal conversation with no records kept, now there are often a large number of digital communications that governments have in their computers. They are complex searches of many computers and servers, including the records of cell phones, portable computers and other devices.

Then all of those many files must be read and redacted to be certain there is no confidential information passed on to someone who is not supposed to have it. One city recently found a seemingly simple request yielded 200,000 emails that needed to be individually read before turning them over to the person who asked for them.

There are even devious trolls who will ask for all information in the government files on some broad subject. One recent request wanted all information for the entire history of a city on drunk driving matters – a subject that would yield millions of documents and take a lot of time to assemble.

Usually the one or two people in a city clerk’s office are detailed to find the records a citizen has asked for so it takes longer than the requester wants to wait. Or if the request is huge, a city can hire outside help which costs the taxpayers extra – for example one city spent well over $50,000 tax dollars to search for records figuring in a lawsuit.

No one wants to keep public records from the taxpayers who want them, but the law must be modified so that fishing demands for records are either stopped or the person demanding them be required to pay the expenses. Our taxpayers should not have to pay for someone’s data fishing expeditions of questionable value to the public.


4 Responses to “JACK MAYNE: Should tax dollars be spent on unreasonable records requests?”
  1. Joel Wachtel says:

    The article speaks the truth! Our antiquated laws were not designed to consider the difference between producing existing records and creating a project that would take dozens of man hours to produce. It s the responsibilities of local, state and federal government to comb through reeks of data to produce a report in the exact format requested by data trolls. The law should be modified to identify the difference between producing records or requesting a specifically formatted new data item that doesn’t currently exist for reproduction. A cost should be assigned projects based on the number of man-hours required to fill the request and the cost should be equal to the cost the state pays to accomplish the task!

    Also the laws regarding government reporting should id notify an index of all documents available to the public. By document I mean, paper and electronic documents, including emails, proposals and any substantive item create by or sent to the office addressed.

    Laws must keep pace with the technology! Reasonable cost from citizen requests must be enforced and limits of cost to the taxpayer must be considered. It costs money to have a data processing department and the people making the requests should pay for it.

  2. Joel Wachtel says:

    You know the folks who disliked my post are the takers in our society. Records are documents, accounting scandal, videos, and emails which except for emails are easily found and delivered. Emails fall into another source. For instance the request, copies of all emails from 1990 to the present having to do with discrimination”. This is a huge request which will take an immense amount of staff involvement, probably hundreds of man-hours. First the review of 26 years of emails within a 100 plus employee office by is enormous. Next the description of the term “discrimination” is fairly vague and requires subjective analysis of each email. Then there is the requisite screening for emails that are not eligible for public release for reasons like attorney client privileged, non- public police records and such. This is actually not a “records request” as much as a project request. But hey, if you want to raise your taxes to provide for “fishing expedition requests”, who am I to argue with you. It seems many people want what they interpret as “their rights” at everyone elses expense. So as long as you realize by not limiting or charging for unreasonable requests you are spending the citizens money, not the cities, since the citizens fund the city that’s a decision the taxpayer has made, not the city. Any abuse of the system is paid for by the tax payer!

  3. Doug Hill says:

    From Mr. Mayne’s article I deduct that he harbors a delusional trust in both the abilities and actions of our elected officials. As we witnessed in last years Council Races in Sea Tac, the issues of back room deals, condescending attitudes by certain incumbents, and disregard for their constituency, the complexion of the council changed due to the outcry for a more open government . Without having access to many of those deleterious activities, culled from these requests, the shortcomings of those officials would not have been exposes. We, the hard working taxpayers have every right to demand transparency as well as the time of the city employees (oh yeah, we pay their salaries) to provide us with the requested information. It is the ultimate power we the citizens possess in keeping elected officials in check.

  4. Michael T Kovacs says:

    Joel? Have you ever done a PDR? Sometimes you need the full dragnet request because if you dont their might be a key piece of the puzzle missing.

    Public servants need to get their acts together and stop hiding all kinds of information from the tax payers. Then maybe the requests will not need to take place in the first place. Ever!