A rash of recent public records requests has led to some tough conversations on how the city of Woodland will handle what some councilors have denounced as nothing more than a taxpayer burden.
During its Sept. 6 meeting, the Woodland City Council discussed options on how to handle a significant increase on the number of public records requests relating to the city’s operations.
A letter dated Aug. 16 was mailed out to thousands of Woodland residents alerting them of a request asking for copies of all utility bills issued on June 21. Those bills would include “utility account numbers, utility account holder names, property addresses, and mailing addresses,” according to the letter.
The letter notes a “third party” who is not the city or the public records requester could seek legal action to keep the information from being released. It stated the city could keep the release from happening until Sept. 21, before which a concerned party must seek action outlined in the state’s Public Records Act, which allows for the release of the information.
The request comes from former Woodland City Clerk Mari Ripp, according to the Longview Daily News. She told the newspaper her aim was “government transparency.”
That request underlines a general increase in records requests the city has received. The 125 records requests the city received in 2021 was about 22% more than what the city experienced in 2020, according to an August report by Woodland Community Development. By the second quarter of this year, the city already received 116 requests, which was double what was received at the same time in 2021.
“We are fulfilling those (requests), however we are struggling immensely in how swift with the amount of requests that are coming,” Mayor Will Finn said at the September meeting.
In order to handle the extra requests, Finn said the city would need a $25,000 expense to fund a part-time employee to focus on requests, or $70,000 for a full-time position with benefits. He also suggested reducing service hours at city hall by closing a day a week to fulfill requests.
“Obviously that would be an impact to the community, but one that would not be costing us any more money at this point,” Finn said.
Finn didn’t advocate for hiring additional staff at this time because of the imminent implementation of body-worn cameras for the city’s police department. He noted some of those costs could be recouped, but only for the police department and not from requests from other city departments.
“I also wouldn’t want to hire someone and things slow down in a year and now we have an employee that doesn’t really have a whole lot to do,” Finn said.
Councilor DeeAnna Holland equated the potential one-day closure of the city hall to a “production day,” which is something she instituted at her own business.
“I do it at work, because sometimes you do need to be uninterrupted,” Holland, the owner of a Vancouver-based embroidery and print shop, said.
She recalled a budget request years back for a public records position that went unanswered.
“And now lo, and behold, there’s a gajillion of them,” Holland said about the requests. “It’s kind of frustrating, because the city can’t plan for (the requests.)”
Holland expressed concern that the requests “have become a game that folks don’t realize” a cost is associated with.
She also was annoyed at alleged claims that she doesn’t reside in city limits. Holland said she has lived in the same house from her childhood that came into the city limits in the 1970s. The accusation is something that has also been leveled at Finn.
“I am just as frustrated … because apparently I live in Ridgefield,” Finn joked. “I live here in town, as does everyone else that sits up here.”