Washington Cities Limit Public Records Retrievals, Citing Costs.

Washington Cities Limit Public Records Retrievals, Citing Costs

Two more Washington cities in recent weeks have curtailed the time they spend on public-records requests, raising alarms among open-government advocates.

The city of Snoqualmie in July imposed a monthly cap for time spent on records requests and barred requesters from possessing any digital devices when they look at documents.

The neighboring city of North Bend in June adopted a similar cap on time spent on records requests, but without banning electronic devices. Both cities justified their restrictions by citing increases in the number and complexity of records requests.

With their new rules, Snoqualmie and North Bend joined at least three other Washington state cities that have adopted workload caps for records requests in recent years.

The cities of Ilwaco and Gold Bar have monthly time caps in place. Meanwhile, the city of Port Orchard limited time spent on records requests to 20 percent of the workload at the city clerk’s office.

The growing use of time caps increases the likelihood of backlogs that force citizens and the press to wait longer for the public documents they seek. Local governments could also use time caps to delay disclosing information to their critics.

In Snoqualmie, a staff report urging the city council to adopt the new rules cited the number of records requests submitted by members of Snoqualmie First, a political civic organization, council documents show.

Snoqualmie in 2018 spent 724 staff hours responding to records requests, for an average of 60 hours a month, according to request logs reviewed by the Snoqualmie Valley Record. The average for the first five months of this year is 32 hours a month.

The city’s new rules limit the time its public records officer spends on records requests to 16 hours a month. Records staff with city departments are limited to eight hours a month.

The Snoqualmie City Council also prohibited requesters from bringing any digital devices into rooms where documents are available for inspection. The ban explicitly includes cameras, cell phones, laptops and tablets.