At its Jan. 16 meeting, the Issaquah City Council approved a long-debated ordinance on public record fees, marking its official implementation on Feb. 1.
According to the agenda bill, the city has aimed to institute public record fees since 2017, but the inability to collect fees by credit card slowed the process.
However, the recent availability of a credit card charging system, as well as the upcoming implementation of police body-worn cameras, led to a public hearing at the Nov. 6 council meeting regarding public record fee implementation.
This implementation of public record fees is an attempt to cover and recover the cost of staff time, the price of copying public records, police records and collision reports, and the redaction of police body-worn camera video footage.
According to the agenda bill, a cost study estimated 5,160 staff hours were spent responding to public records requests in 2022, and the average cost per public records request was $158.
Another purpose for public record fees is to urge requesters to narrow their requests, consequently receiving only the specific records they need and reducing staff time and expenses, according to the city.
When the council debated approving the initial resolution and adopting the ordinance at the Dec. 4 meeting, council members were not satisfied with the high costs proposed by the administration. On a 5-1 vote, the council decided to move the resolution to the Committee of the Whole meeting on Jan. 8.
The initial resolution proposed that requesters pay $9 for the first 10 records received electronically, and pay 25 cents for every record after, with the potential of an extra 10 cents per gigabyte for files uploaded to the portal.
However, at the Jan. 8 meeting, the council was met with a second rendition of the proposal, which withdrew the $9 fee and implemented a flat fee of 25 cents per record, with an added 10 cents per gigabyte for files uploaded.
The revision also included a waiver of fees to public record requests of $3 or below.
Despite this change, the police records and reports would stay congruent with the initial proposal.
The initial proposal stated requesting police records, such as police body-worn cameras, would cost requesters 80 cents per minute if they were not involved in the incident.
Police reports, including collision reports, would charge $8 and $15 for clearance letters.
However, charges will vary according to whether a requester views records at city hall, requests paper copies, or requests to pick up records on USB at city hall or have them mailed.
The low-income waiver fee would still allow requesters who earn 50% of the area median income or lower to access 20 records at no charge.
Tammy Mueller, public records analyst for the city, said they estimated the annual revenue made with the revised rates, using the public record request in Nov. 2023 and multiplying by 12. The projected recovery funds were over $21,000, with the median request costing $9.50 — not including police -body-worn camera redactions.
“That’s roughly about 10% of cost recovery based on the total cost of the public records request program,” Mueller said.
The annual cost of responding to public records requests added up to nearly $249,000 in 2022, according to the agenda bill.
While the council generally approved the revised resolution, some members raised questions about the $3 waiver.
“From an administrative point of view, that is a very small number,” said councilmember Chris Reh. “You can’t do anything for $3.”
“I don’t want to create any kind of barrier to people wanting to do public records requests that are within reason,” he added, proposing future consideration of a waiver fee of around $25.
Councilmember Barbara de Michele said the $3 waiver was too low and would not cover the estimated $249,000 spent on record requests annually.
“We need to look at a little bit higher than $3 and see if we can offset [the annual cost] just a little bit more,” she said. “It does seem like it’s very reasonable at this point, and we’re not coming close to the actual cost of the redactions and the things that need to be done.”
Councilmembers Zach Hall and Victoria Hunt supported the $3 waiver, believing it would encourage requesters to be more specific in their requests, ultimately reducing staff hours as originally intended by the ordinance.
“I don’t want to completely dismiss the concern that councilmember Reh brought up,” Hall said at the Jan. 16 meeting. “So let’s just keep an eye on that in case the time and cost of invoicing creates more trouble than it helps.”
City council president Lindsey Walsh echoed her support on keeping an eye on the $3 waiver to see if it serves the city in the long term.
Although some council members were wary about aspects of the revised resolution, the council unanimously approved the resolution and adopted the ordinance at the Jan. 16 meeting.