'Abusive' Info Requests Lead To Push For Less Government Transparency
Flooded with requests for public records, local officials want to put limits on how much information public servants have to make available to the public.
The concepts have long been enshrined in Washington state law:
- Information held by the government belongs to the people.
- Public access to that information is essential to a functioning democracy.
But a parade of local officials called for new limits on that access at a hearing in Olympia on Thursday. They shared horror stories of what they called "abusive," "malicious" and "vexatious" requests for records.
Tim Clemans, who calls himself a "super requester," has been especially prolific: The Burien programmer has filed thousands of records requests with agencies around Washington state in the past year.
He hit the Seattle Police Department with 5,000 requests on a single day in December. His requests have included all records the city of Seattle has ever produced and every email ever sent or received by a Washington state employee.
"When we're asked for every shred of paper and every record that's ever been produced, we are burdened to point of being unable to do our basic duties," Issaquah City Council president Stacy Goodman told the House Committee on Local Government.
Laurene Burton with Kirkland's EvergreenHealth hospital system, which is run by King County Public Hospital District No. 2, described one "onerous" records request that has turned into a cascade of requests over the past two years.
"It has cost tens of thousands of dollars just for this one request," Burton said. "Those are dollars that cannot be spent on patient care."
Most of the local officials who testified said the majority of requests are not abusive. They come from businesses, lawyers, journalists and ordinary citizens.
But officials said they want limits on how much time they are required to spend handling requests.
The legislation would let local governments set limits on how much time they spend responding to requests and prioritize which requests to handle first. It would also let them charge commercial requesters the full cost of staff time for responding to requests and create a commission, appointed by the governor, to resolve disputes over public records.
'It Doesn't Stop Me'
Open-government advocates said the move would hurt all requesters, not just the excessive ones.
"A lot of this punishes everyone for bad actors," said Rowland Thompson, lobbyist for Allied Daily Newspapers and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.
"Well, it doesn't stop me," Tim Clemans said of the bill in an interview with KUOW. He estimated his requests have cost taxpayers, "easily, well over $400,000."
Clemans said he does want the records he requests, but his grand ambition is to get government agencies to take a radically more transparent approach. He said he wants them to put almost all their information online, so people don't have to ask for it.
"I don't have sympathy for agencies who are not willing to come up with better strategies," he said.
Clemans told KUOW he did withdraw his massive public disclosure request for records from the Seattle Police, for whom he worked briefly last year. (In an earlier interview with journalist Erica Barnett, Clemans said he told police shortly before quitting, “I’m going to PDR the shit out of you.")
Clemans said his goal of building his own website to house 911 calls, dashboard-cam videos and other public information failed because of technical roadblocks. He said he's considering withdrawing his requests from other agencies as well.
The Washington State Auditor's office is conducting a study of records requests around the state. It wants to see how much they cost taxpayers around the state and how well agencies are handling the public's demands for information. SAO expects that report to be done in August.
The Center for Public Integrity gave Washington state an "F" grade last year for public access to government information. Only six states did not receive a failing grade.
Clemans said if governments would just put their information online, there'd be better transparency—and no more opportunity for abusive records requests like his.