Please Stop: Handling Public Requests
October 15, 2019
Category: Public Records Act
Municipal employees sometimes must deal with a people who make numerous requests for public records, or complain, or just want to talk. What can you do? What can’t you do? What should you do?
Responding to Public Records Requests
A citizen requests copies of all the emails and text messages sent by several of your elected officials over the last three years. Hundreds of records are involved: Must they be provided? Yes, absolutely. An agency may not refuse to provide records simply because the request is large or has previously been made. The person making the request is not required to give a reason for the request. The records must be provided, subject to possible redaction.
Can you ever say no?
Is there anything that can be done when the request seems unwieldy or impossible? A few statutory provisions may help. While records must be provided — per RCW 42.56.080(1) and WAC 44-14-0402(2) — the request must be for identifiable records, or those that exist and can be reasonably located. A request for a record not currently in existence (“I want all applications for next month's zoning change”) is not a valid request nor is a request for information (“How much did the city pay for travel in March?”).
If the records are not identifiable the request can be denied, but you must first attempt to get clarification from the requestor (see RCW 42.56.100 and WAC 44-14-04002). Sometimes a person may not know what he or she wants, and by discussing the request with that person, you may pare down the size of it. Record requests can be provided to the requestor in installments. However, if an installment is not picked up or reviewed by the requestor, the agency is no longer required to fulfill the balance of the request, per WAC 44-14-040(10).
Per RCW 42.56.070(7), a charge can now made for providing electronic records. Additionally, RCW 42.56.120(4) allows a local government to require an upfront deposit for copies, which may discourage or reduce some of the larger requests.
RCW 42.56.100 allows a local government to adopt rules that can help guard it against “excessive interference with other essential functions of the agency.” The rules do not eliminate the responsibility to provide records, but they may better establish time expectations for a response given the agency’s other responsibilities. As an example, see PRA Rules 010-090 in the City of Kirkland’s Public Records Act Rules.
Responding to Complaints
Government can’t and doesn’t please everyone all the time. If a person feels somehow wronged, he or she may complain, sometimes directing the complaint to a municipal employee who is the most accessible but one who has little or no knowledge of the issue or how it can be resolved. What then? Obviously, the complainant can and probably should be directed to someone better able to provide a response. Sometimes, though, a complaint can be resolved or diffused merely by an employee courteously listening and showing an understanding of the complainant’s situation.
Dealing with aggressive behavior
What should be done, though, if the person disrupts, threatens, or harasses employees? First, politely ask the person to stop or maybe even ask him or her to leave. If necessary, get a supervisor, manager, director, or mayor to help. If the problem persists, police intervention could be an option.
A criminal charge, such as trespass, might be possible (RCW 9A.52.080) if the person remains onsite and continues to disrupt the business of the municipality. Under RCW 9A.46.020 a person can be charged with harassment (i.e., causes or threatens bodily injury, physical damage to property, threatens physical confinement or restraint, or maliciously acts to substantially harm another’s mental health or safety), and under RCW 9A.76.180 a person could be charged with intimidating a public servant if, by threat, he or she attempts to influence a vote, opinion, decision, or other official act.
Potentially arresting a person or having a criminal complaint filed against him or her is a very serious step for a local government to take — and certainly not a preferred way to proceed — but it may need to be considered if the person making the complaint makes it impossible for business to be safely or effectively carried out.
As a preventative measure, if a person’s conduct is improper, serious, and ongoing, the agency’s attorney may need to request a restraining order from the court to prevent the person from entering a building where government activity is being conducted. If the harassment is continuous and directed to a specific individual, the person being harassed could ask a court for an anti-harassment protection order under RCW 10.14.080.
Some people just want to talk . . .and talk
Occasionally someone may come into the office ostensibly on business but, in fact, mostly wants to talk. Is there really any harm? Probably not but work that needs to be done by municipal employees cannot be done during an extended conversation. Explain that time devoted to visiting cannot continue because of work assignments. A supervisor may need to intervene to help keep conversations short and primarily limited to municipal business.
In dealing with public requests, be they for records, complaints, or just a chat, having a consistent, friendly approach and carefully reminding visitors that work needs to be done may help.
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