FILE — Seattle city hall cops

In this Wednesday, July 15, 2020, file photo, Seattle Police officers walk past people holding signs and flags during a rally in support of police and other law enforcement officers, in front of City Hall in Seattle.

(The Center Square) – Citizens requesting public records from the city of Seattle this year may be warned that those requests might not be fulfilled until next spring.

Among the most common replies requesters can be met with from Seattle government in the past several months has been that public records requests will be responded to by May 21, 2021. 

The Seattle Police Department's Legal Unit recently responded to a records request from The Center Square saying it's "operating under an extreme backlog of requests, staffing shortages, the redeployment of supporting units to SPD’s frontline COVID-19 response," in addition to staffers working from home, and has "substantially limited" processing requests.

"At this time, we anticipate having a response or a status update to you on or about 5/21/2021," the response said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down nearly every branch of government and that includes public records requests filed by its citizens.

Between January and Oct. 8 of this year, Seattle received 12,003 requests for public records, city data show.

By comparison, the city received 14,714 public records requests last year and closed 12,770 of them.

Roughly 42% of public records requests in 2020 were made by individuals while 21% were made by law firms much like past years. Another 10% were made by unnamed organizations and just 5% were made by media groups.

Of those requests, 7,390 were directed to the Seattle Police Department (SPD) while another 1,760 were for the Seattle Fire Department (SFD).

Those numbers are still on track to roughly match SPD records requests in 2019, which totaled 8,047. The SFD received 2,495 that year.

This comes as the SPD is facing more than 100 open investigations by the Office of Police Accountability into allegations of police brutality during protests this summer.

Despite renewed interest in police accountability in Washington and nationwide, the SPD has still seen far more records requests than in past years, such as in 2014, when it received 4,700 requests for public records.

A city audit the following year found the SPD boasted insufficient resources to process public records requests on top of its well-documented problems processing overtime pay.

The Washington Public Records Act (PRA) requires public agencies to respond to requesters about the status of their requests in five business days. It does not dictate when they must provide the requested public records, if at all.

The data necessary for this Center Square story took roughly one week (or five business days) to obtain.

Public agencies in Washington are expected to provide a reasonable estimate for when public records will be made available. An agency is not required to put a hold on its other work to respond to requests.

Access to public records in Washington has been a problem long in the making, according to Microsoft Program Manager and Kirkland City Council member Toby Nixon, who sits on the board for the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG).

“There’s been a growing problem with agencies intentionally restricting the number of hours a month that their staff can spend on public records requests, with those limits being arbitrary and not based on their historical demand for public records,” Nixon said.

Still, Nixon says, it may be hard to say if delays in responses are out of the ordinary.

Obtaining paper documents is even harder, Nixon points out, as many public employees are working from home away from city filing cabinets and many more are furloughed during the Seattle’s pandemic-induced budget deficit.

The average amount of time people had to wait before receiving a final response on their public records requests was 42.3 days, Seattle city data show.

Of those requests, 3,407 were closed or addressed within five business days and 2,323 were denied or redacted.

The five most common reasons the city cited for denying requests that year were compromising law enforcement investigations, attorney-client privilege, personal privacy, employee ID numbers, and financial privacy.

Fulfilling a request took city staff up to 10 hours on average at a cost of about $546.34 per request in 2019, or $8.7 million for the entire year. During that time, Seattle made an additional $14,835 off of public records request fees.

According to a report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, Washington agencies reported receiving 337,653 public records requests in 2018 and took 16 days to close the average request as with the previous year. This cost the state about $78.4 million.

Local governments closed requests in as little as eight days while higher learning institutions took as long as 38 days on average in 2017.

The PRA allows agencies to essentially cap the number of hours they spend responding to public records request, Nixon says, and “spread the work over time when an unusually large number of requests or requests that are unusually large in scope are received.”

“They aren’t required to stop providing their other essential services and put all hands on processing PRA requests,” Nixon said. “But they also cannot intentionally under-resource their public records function, and WCOG argues that the minimum they should budget for PRA work should be based on the typical demand for records the past couple of years before the budget is set.” 

For Nixon, public agencies are all too often set up for failure by having neither the money or the staff to provide access to process requests even when there is no “extraordinary” demand for them.

Taking a public agency to court over public records requests can be expensive for everyone.

In 2019, Seattle spent more than $181,000 on litigation claims concerning alleged violations of public records, city data show.

As the Seattle City Council and state lawmakers gear up for tumultuous budget discussions amid a global pandemic and a nationwide recession, time will tell if money for public records access will be on the table.