A request to the town of Coulee Dam for public records, coupled with a possible misunderstanding of who the requestor was, has led the mayor to step squarely into the middle of a perpetual fight in the state Legislature between cities and open government advocates as a “poster boy” for the latter.
The Association of Washington Cities (AWC) made “relief from harassing and abusive public records requests” a top priority in Olympia this year, citing claims of prison inmates and others filing requests just to harass officials at great expense to taxpayers.
The resulting House Bill 1128 would have allowed agencies to determine on their own whether a specific public records request was indeed just harassment. And it would have allowed them to sue citizens to stop asking.
Open government advocates rallied hard to stop it, and did, but expect that the fight is not over.
To prepare for it, the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG) is asking agencies for records that show just how big a burden records request are. They filed public records requests via email, including one sent to Coulee Dam’s town clerk on July 4.
Mayor Quincy Snow responded last Tuesday. “I know why you are doing this and HE won’t get help this way,” Snow wrote back. “I am fed up with this kind of harassment and my clerk has a lot of work on her plate and can’t take the time to play silly games.”
That brought a firm response from Toby Nixon, president of WCOG, explaining the non-profit’s educational and advocacy roles in support of transparency in government.
Then he added: “If your intent is for us to interpret your email as a denial of our request in its entirety, then please confirm that, and we will proceed accordingly. In our experience, Washington courts frown on agencies who treat legitimate public records requests as ‘harassment’.”
Nixon said he didn’t know the “HE” Snow referred to in his email, but Snow has complained in the past about requests from activist-turned-mayoral candidate Greg Wilder.
Nixon included state legislators and area newspapers on his response.
That inspired a critical editorial by the Spokesman Review on Thursday entitled “Whining over public records law not all right,” specifically citing Snow’s email.
Reached Tuesday, Nixon said WCOG’s request of Coulee Dam was one of 40 that went to cities and towns picked at random by an extern on behalf of the organization. All of the other responses so far have been cordial.
He said about 80 percent of some 3,000 agencies have so far said they don’t have the requested records.
“We’re not asking anybody to do any work,” he said, explaining that they don’t want a fresh analysis, just a report if it already exists. “I would expect that a mayor or a city clerk would pretty much know off the top of their head whether such records exist.”
If the study shows that cities don’t, in fact, know what the costs of public records requests are, that could go against future attempts to change the state’s Public Records Act. Most cities so far don’t know those costs, Nixon said, “and yet they’re standing in front of the Legislature claiming a tremendous burden.”
Allowing agencies to determine the intent of a requestor can lead to subjective decisions that leave legitimate requests going unanswered, Nixon said.
Sen. Linda Evans Parlette (R-12th District) said she understands the frustrations of small towns with such requests.
“These little communities are short of money and short on staff,” she wrote to Nixon. “Many of them have never heard of your organization and its quest for government transparency.”
But Nixon and others, including Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center’s Tri-Cities office, think the problem lies largely in a lack of training. They say relief exists if towns follow the guidelines and remedies already in law, but they’re not aware of them.
“We’re trying to fill in all this information so that the Legislature can have an informed debate before they go changing one of the best public records laws in the country,” Mercier said.
If that debate rolls around next session, Snow’s email to WCOG may come up.
“I kind of resisted adding something like ‘Thank you for becoming our new poster child,’” Nixon said of his response to Snow. “It does make for a very good example.”
Neither Mayor Snow nor Town Clerk Carol Visker could be reached for comment Tuesday. Nixon said Snow is going to get back to him on his offer to talk with him and town staff about the request.
The series of email exchanges, which are public record, can be read in the sidebar at right.