Requests for public records becoming major task for officials
May 27, 2021
By Diana Zimmerman
“The future always comes to Wahkiakum about 10 years late,” Prosecuting Attorney Dan Bigelow said. “An awful lot of other counties in Washington have had to hire a full time person to deal with public records requests.”
He recently suggested to Wahkiakum County commissioners that they consider a full time position to handle public records requests at the courthouse, as they are seeing the number of requests grow exponentially.
Beth Johnson, who is the clerk of the board of commissioners, admits she gets a little anxious when she receives one.
“It gets your heart going,” she said. “If you make a mistake, it can have big consequences.”
The requests are showing up in the mail, by email, and phone, and whoever is handling the request has five days to respond. They might be able to provide the information in those five days, or they have to notify the person when they complete the records request, or they may be able to reject it.
“There are people who want legitimate information from the government, which I’m all for,” Johnson said, “but there are people who are just hoping you are going to make a mistake, and fines that are calculated by day.”
Bigelow explained that if anything goes wrong, a two year statute of limitations provides for a lawsuit to take place in which the person suing for the records, unless they lose completely, is automatically provided their attorney’s fees, and a penalty of up to $100 for every day that requested records should have been handed over and weren’t.
For some, Bigelow said, “It is a pretty decent business proposition.”
Johnson said she might not get a request for a couple months, and then get three in a week.
“It’s definitely picking up for us,” Johnson said. “I’m still not saying it’s a lot, but I’m definitely seeing the increase. I’m sure other departments get requests that I don’t hear about, and of course, the sheriff’s office is a whole other story.”
“We get the majority of public record requests,” Sheriff Mark Howie said. “There are some people who make careers out of making public requests and try and take advantage of agencies that maybe aren’t so savvy to public records laws and slap a lawsuit on them for failing to abide by public records laws.”
In his office, it largely falls on Administrative Assistant Raedyn Grasseth to handle it.
“I’ve been doing the public records requests for over 22 years,” Grasseth said. “I would say in the last 10 years it has really picked up, and in the last four years I’d say my work load has doubled, and in the last two years I’ll probably do 250-300 public requests a year.”
That doesn’t include the requests she gets from other offices, like the prosecutor’s office, attorneys offices, or other law enforcement agencies, like the FBI.
“It’s definitely grown a lot,” Grasseth said. “People are wanting information for everything. It’s affecting every police agency. We are all in the same boat.”
The training is continual. Grasseth takes classes every couple months, just to keep up with the changes; learning what is public information, and what isn’t.
“You definitely have to keep up on that,” she said.
Every request is different, but they are all time consuming. There is no easy way to do this work, and Grasseth spends a lot of time digging through boxes in the basement, doing hand searches through paper files, though some has been digitized in recent years.
Bigelow points out that it’s not like the movies where you watch someone cross reference, for instance, double paned windows with people who own BMWs. He added that the work doesn’t end after files are sifted through. After finding all the documents that are needed, the employee has to read through everything and make sure any information like social security numbers, for instance, have not been left in.
Everything that has been blacked out has to be explained, and a legal justification to be given, Bigelow said.
“I’ve had requests that are thousands of pages of paper long,” Grasseth said, “and have taken me months to complete. It’s time consuming.”
“It’s becoming a bigger issue, and we are getting more requests than ever before,” Howie said.