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Tackling the Big Ones: Strategies for Broad Records Requests

Worker reading a file stands in front of stacked file boxes.

Editor's note: This blog has been amended to note that under RCW 40.14.026(4), agencies are required to maintain a public records request log.

We often get asked for guidance or best practices on handling public records requests that will result in a large volume of records, especially from smaller jurisdictions that may only have one staff person managing public records requests in addition to other job duties. Below are a few strategies we’ve collected over the years that your jurisdiction may be able to adopt. Some of these should be added to your adopted records policy, so now is a good time to review your policies to be sure they are still working for you.

First, a Warning For Records Staff

Resist the urge to interpret a request narrowly. Sometimes you will get a request that is worded in a manner that it could encompass a very broad category of records, but you think the requestor really only wants a much smaller group of records.

For example, you get a request for all records related to development on Main Street for the last two years. There happens to be a single project on Main Street that is currently drawing a lot of public attention. Surely, the requestor only wants records related to that project and not the multi-year water main replacement project that was completed 18 months ago?

No. You cannot assume that the requestor does not want the water main records, but before you start pulling all those records, consider reaching out to the requestor and explaining that their request as written encompasses multiple categories of records and invite them to narrow their request. Note this is not a request for clarification. Their request as written is clear — just very broad. I point this out because a request to narrow the scope is not one of the ways you can respond to a records request within five business days. Instead, at the least, inform the requestor that you will provide the first installment of records on a date certain based on the broader interpretation of the request as written but give them an opportunity to narrow the scope before they start incurring copy charges.

It's a Marathon, Pace Yourself

One good strategy we’ve seen are those jurisdictions that have adopted a triage or tiered system to evaluate requests as they come in. Routine requests, such as those that clearly identify the specific documents they are looking for, can be slotted into one queue since these typically can be completed within the first five days. More complex requests are put into a different queue with a certain amount of staff time dedicated to responding to those requests each week or month.

For those jurisdictions that do not have dedicated records staff, in order “to prevent excessive interference with other essential functions of the agency” as mentioned in RCW 42.56.100, it may be necessary to adopt policies that specifically limit how much time is spent processing records requests. See examples at the bottom of MRSC’s page on Public Records Act Basics.

A Failure to Plan, Is a Plan to Fail

When tackling a big request, it is imperative to develop a strategy and follow it. Break up the request into types of records, probable locations, email boxes, etc. Identify the low hanging fruit that you’ll likely be able to produce with little to no redaction or advanced review. Get a feel for the documents and identify which exemptions are likely to apply and take on redactions in chunks. Develop your plan in consultation with the folks that actually work with the records and have periodic check-ins to be sure the process is working. Carefully track each step in your plan and be sure to get that dopamine hit when you can check off an item from the list.

No Free Rides

The Public Records Act (PRA) allows jurisdictions to adopt fees for copying or providing digital records (RCW 42.56.120). Some jurisdictions have not adopted a fee schedule or have opted to waive the fee if under a certain dollar amount, like $5 dollars, with the reasoning being that the cost in staff time to process and collect the fee is greater than the amount that can be recouped.

However, I believe this practice invites abuse of the system. Requestors can ask the jurisdiction to perform a significant amount of work without appreciating the strain on the system or they can break up their requests into multiple submissions to try and stay under the fee threshold. At the very least, every jurisdiction should seriously consider charging for records — even if only a few cents. If you do opt to have a minimum fee threshold, consider making it per requestor during a certain time frame (i.e., monthly) rather than per request.

If you charge fees, you can also take advantage of the up to 10% deposit option discussed in RCW 42.56.120(4). After your initial evaluation of the request, you can estimate what the charges will be for the entire production and require a deposit up front — before you begin some of the more arduous aspects of reviewing the documents. You can also charge (or credit against the deposit) for each installment of records as they become available. If the requestor fails to claim (e.g., pay for) the records, you are “not obligated to fulfill the balance of the request” and can deem it abandoned.

Keeping It Straight

As you produce records, it is important to keep track of exactly which records have been produced and whether they have been claimed.

Technically, the PRA does not require agencies to keep a copy of all the records produced in response to a request, but there are a few reasons this may be a good idea. The first, as mentioned in the Washington State Attorney General’s (AGO) Model Rules on Public Disclosure, involves requests for records produced in response to other requests. See WAC 44-14-04006(3). You can save yourself a lot of duplicate effort if you do not have to recreate your prior work.

Further, RCW 40.14.026(4) requires agencies to maintain a public records request log that includes a description of the records produced, redacted, and/or withheld in response to a request. For very large requests, it may not be feasible to individually list each record. Providing a brief categorical description in the log with a notation that a copy of the complete production is stored elsewhere should meet this statutory obligation.

Another reason is the possibility of litigation. Having a copy of all produced records may help defend your agency against a claim that you did not provide a requested record. We also recommend that you apply a page number to all records produced in a process called Bates Stamping — again, it is easier to spot missing records if there is a break in the sequential numbering.

As you produce records in installments, you will want to keep track of whether the requestor claimed the records. A records request can be considered abandoned if a reasonable time has passed since the requestor was notified that the requested records were available. The Model Rules on Public Disclosure indicate 30 days is a reasonable time period to wait (WAC 44-14-04005).

When it comes to digital records, we recommend using a method of delivery that allows you to know whether the records have been claimed within that reasonable time period, such as an online records portal or document exchange platform. Emailing several emails with lots of attachments invites the possibility of attachment errors, having your work filtered into junk email folders or blocked as spam, and the passive receipt by the requestor, which will not definitively indicate if a request has been abandoned.

Know When to Ask for Help

Sometimes, we need to recognize when even all our best strategies fall short and we can’t go it alone. Some jurisdictions have started to turn to outside contractors and vendors to assist in managing, searching, and/or responding to large requests — some on an ad-hoc basis and others on a longer-term, continuing-support basis. There are costs associated with such services, but the math may work out when considering potential liability and freeing up staff time. However, strong agreements must be in place to control any access and inadvertent release of confidential information.

Additionally, we are lucky in Washington State to have the Local Government Public Records Consultation Program housed within the AGO. These folks can come onsite and help customize your jurisdiction’s strategies for responding to records requests so that you are better prepared for the big ones.

And as always, we at MRSC are available to folks at cities, counties, and qualifying special purpose districts — even if you just need a friendly ear to listen.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Sarah Doar

About Sarah Doar

Sarah Doar joined MRSC in September 2018.

Most recently, she served as a Civil Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for Island County. At Island County, Sarah advised on many aspects of government business, including compliance with public record and opening meeting laws. She also defended the County in Growth Management Act and Land Use litigation. Prior to moving to Washington, Sarah practiced land use, environmental, and appellate law in Florida for over eight years.

Sarah holds a B.A. in Biology from Case Western Reserve University and a J.D. with a certificate in environmental and land use law from Florida State University College of Law.