Public records requests by man costly for city

Vancouver has to spend thousands in staff time

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Vancouver officials are dismayed over one man’s massive public records requests that are set to cost the city tens of thousands of dollars in staff time to fulfill.

Vancouver resident and retired Portland police Sgt. Mitch Copp filed a request for all email communications between June 1, 2010, and Jan. 11, 2011, from Mayor Tim Leavitt and City Councilor Jack Burkman — at an estimated cost of $10,000 to $15,000 in staff time, City Manager Eric Holmes said.

Copp recently made a second request, asking for all communications between June 1, 2010, and March 7, 2011, for the rest of the councilors except Jeanne Stewart. That request is expected to be more costly than the first.

Copp’s public records requests — made under the state’s public information law, and filed with no parameters to narrow the search — creates work that further stretches an already strapped work force, Holmes said.

“I am a fan of (public records). … There are key accountability measures in place for government, and public disclosure is one of those accountability measures,” he said. “But there’s a difference between accountability and abuse.”

He declined to say if he thought Copp was abusing the system, because he did not know what Copp was looking for. Copp, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, has emailed The Columbian in the past to say he believes Leavitt — through his work as an engineer with PBS Engineering + Environmental — and Burkman — who last consulted with the state Department of Transportation three years ago — both stand to profit immensely from the Columbia River Crossing project.

Both men deny that claim — PBS has no CRC contracts, and Burkman is no longer involved with WSDOT. Vancouver’s city attorney has also said there is no conflict.

Leavitt put it less diplomatically at Monday’s city council meeting: “It’s an absolute travesty we can’t get folks to narrow their requests. There are some folks who appear to be abusing the system, and it’s going to drain the city’s ability to do what we need to do for our citizens.”

Washington’s public records law, passed in 1972, requires cities to make “all public records and documents in state and local agencies available for public inspection and copying.”

@NormalParagraphStyle:In a digital age, emails and other electronic public documents can quickly add up to thousands of pages that must be reviewed by a clerk for individual, business and legal confidentiality before they’re handed over. A government can charge up to 15 cents per page for copying, but if it fails to comply with the law, a mandatory $100 per day penalty is assessed.

‘At any price?’

And now public agencies are lobbying for change.

In 2009, Clark County spent 13,576 hours, or at least $270,000, on Freedom of Information Act requests, County Administrator Bill Barron said, adding that figure likely is rising.

“Obviously we will comply with the law, but I think it comes to mind that there should be some kind of a balance between those who want specific information and have a specific reason for it versus people who would harass local government in this way,” Barron said. “Do we do this at any price?”

Among the largest recent requests to the county was one from Camas resident Margaret Tweet. She asked for two years of information on the salaries and benefits of each of the county’s 1,600 employees, which had one worker spending one-third of his time for a few months on the project, along with employees in numerous other departments.

As interest in the Columbia River Crossing and light rail heats up, C-Tran’s requests have gone from about one request a month to two or three a week, spokesman Scott Patterson said. Some take a few moments, others take weeks.

@NormalParagraphStyle:“It’s safe to say that over the last 20 years, this has got to be up there in the agency’s history,” Patterson said. “And it’s fair to say that it’s putting an extra strain on limited staff resources.”

Clark County and Vancouver both have reform on their list of legislative priorities. This year, several bills were introduced, including one that would create a “cost recovery” clause, which would provide requestors with five hours of free search time per request per month, but then allow public agencies to recover additional costs.

Attorney General Rob McKenna also had a bill that would have created a “review panel” of sorts, where officials could help a requester narrow what he or she is really looking for in a search.

None of the bills made it to the governor’s desk to be signed.

“I think it will continue to be on our agenda and the Association of Washington Cities’ agenda,” Vancouver’s Holmes said. “The way that the current system is structured, so that the city is not able to require a narrowing of what the request is about, it does make it more challenging in a time of constrained resources. Because we’re required to respond, we have to look at trade-offs.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com.