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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Who’s asking for public records?

    Feb. 20–News reporters used to make most public records requests, but private citizens and a host of professionals now dominate the demands for public documents.

    “”We used to make 80 percent of them, but now I’ll bet it is 5 percent,”” said Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, which represents two dozen newspapers across the state.

    A survey of several Tri-City-area governments and public agencies to discover who was requesting what in 2010 also found far fewer reporters’ public records requests than those from the public.

    Of more than 11,800 requests submitted to eight public agencies, just 30 came from the news media.

    Queries for accident reports and other law enforcement records are most common.

    For example, Kennewick officials received 145 records requests in 2010, while the Kennewick Police Department received more than 6,300, said Kennewick Police Capt. Scott Ruf.

    Pasco officials received 201 records requests last year through Dec. 15, not including documents handed out as a courtesy, those available online or those processed by police.

    A Pasco police detective’s 16 requests for records kept at city hall, all related to a personnel issue, were the most sought by an individual last year, said Stan Strebel, Pasco deputy city manager.

    Bill DeBoard of Pasco, a retired educator who led the 2008 Pasco Pride for Pools bond election committee, was a typical requester. He wanted to see plans filed by developer Jim Hale to build a water park.

    “”Government works best that does not work in secret,”” said DeBoard, who uses the act to get information that affects him as a taxpayer.

    Pasco attorney Pat Roach last year requested a recording of a Pasco Planning Commission meeting. He said records requests help him better represent clients in personal injury, land use and criminal cases. His most frequent requests are for Washington State Patrol reports, which include photos, witness statements and notes from troopers that are not in accident reports.

    Strebel said it takes Pasco staff about four hours to handle a request. With 201 requests in 2010, that would be 804 hours of staff time, the equivalent of one person working almost 20 full work weeks.

    All requests the Herald made to Pasco in 2010 were fully answered in five days, which is typical, Strebel said.

    But sometimes a request is vague or a “”research project”” that results in many documents a requester may not want. Strebel said it would nice if the state would differentiate between a record request and a research project.

    Strebel said the city would like to see balance in the records act, but added, “”It’s important that people have access to the information that government uses and government generates.

    Here are some examples of what other local governments saw in public records requests last year:

    Kennewick

    Developer Jose Chavallo, who attends most city council and planning commission meetings, said he routinely requests meeting documents, including audio recordings, just to be sure “”they can’t spin the facts later.””

    Cole Morgan, owner of the Elegant Gardens, submitted two requests related to documents and permits for outdoor weddings and an appeal hearing on his business. Morgan lost his appeal for a permit, asked for a pile of documents, then did not pick them up, leaving the city with an unpaid $391 charge for producing the records.

    The Morgan and Chavallo requests were among 140 Kennewick received in 2010 that were separate from more than 6,300 to the police department and 60 to the fire department, said City Clerk Valerie Loffler.

    The city began tracking costs for staff time in processing public records requests in June, tallying a $17,617 cost through November, Loffler said.

    Prosser

    More than 70 percent of the 133 requests the city received last year were from Larry Loges, whose sparring with city hall for documents over the past two years produced a court-ordered penalty of $175,000 against the city.

    With 97 requests in 2010, Loges was the leading requester. There also were 228 requests to the police department, including two from Loges.

    Rachel Shaw, Prosser’s city clerk, handles record requests at city hall, which fill several file drawers.

    Other typical requests were for documents involving code enforcement for an address on Florence Street, records relating to a study to form a regional fire authority, and an attorney asking for documents related to Montecito Estates and Mountain View Estates.

    Benton City

    There were about 10 public records requests per month in Benton City, said clerk-treasurer Stephanie Haug. Most were related to code enforcement actions or zoning matters, she said.

    Connell

    Some of the 62 records requests Connell received in 2010 were due to negotiations with the city’s police union, said City Administrator Steve Taylor. That was the most requests the city had received for one year, but the number doesn’t concern Taylor as much as the potential liability for making a mistake.

    Kennewick Irrigation District

    One of the 102 requests Kennewick Irrigation District received last year was from its board president, John Jaksch, who asked for the names of every property owner in the 55,000-acre district who owned 10 acres or more. Jaksch intended to use the information to solicit votes for re-election, but he ended up running unopposed.

    Dale Walter, a former KID board member, submitted 49 of 102 requests, focusing on water rates documentation. And 26 requests from Jim Wade, a frequent KID critic, were generally for expense records.

    A more typical request was from Tamara Maruska, who asked about irrigation water to her property routed through a private line and what repairs had been done.

    Benton County

    Requests from jail inmates can be the most difficult and time-consuming, said Bobbi Romine, records sergeant.

    Some “”appear to be no more than attempts to file lawsuits if we don’t meet all the requirements in the time specified (by state law),”” Romine said.

    The sheriff’s office processed about 1,500 requests last year. One full-time employee is dedicated to processing replies, with two others helping as needed.

    Other county departments received a total of 545 requests last year, with the majority, 141 requests, made to the prosecuting attorney’s office. The jail had 59, planning had 47, the treasurer 46, and the commissioners 42.

    Franklin County

    County Administrator Fred Bowen said the Public Records Act is part of being a public agency. “”We are happy to help the public,”” he said.

    Staff time to provide records has increased as more people use the act, Bowen said. But he could not provide specific information about requests in 2010.

    Having electronic documents can make it easier for staff to provide them, but the county still has years of documents that exist only on paper, he said.

    To see more of the Tri-City Herald, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.tri-cityherald.com.

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