A public hearing on Blaine City Council approving fees for copies of public records turned into a shouting match after council attempted to limit two speakers’ testimony when they began commenting on unrelated topics.
City council held a November 13 public hearing on Resolution 1935-23, establishing fees for public record request copies, and Resolution 1936-23, increasing the fee for body-worn camera footage requests. Even though the fees are standard for public agencies in Washington state, speakers expressed concern the effect would be to limit city transparency. About eight people spoke at the heated hearing before council approved the resolutions in a 4-0 decision.
In October 2022, city council asked staff to update the fees for copies of public records and, after working with the city attorney, staff recommended council follow the state’s guidance on the fees.
Under the new fee schedule for public records, the city will charge 15 cents per page for paper copies, 10 cents per page for scanned copies, and 5 cents for every four electronic files or attachments. (For example, a requester would pay $62.50 to receive 5,000 emails, which city staff have argued doesn’t come close to covering the length of time spent on the request.)
The city will increase its fee from 66 cents to 74 cents per minute for body-camera footage to partially reflect the time it takes to redact content. The Blaine Police Department only has one employee scanning requested body-worn camera footage for redactions after a recent layoff.
“If an officer makes an arresting stop or anything of that nature, if they hold a driver’s license in front of a body cam, an individual at the police department has to frame-by-frame blur out the driver’s license,” deputy city manager Sam Crawford said.
The city has experienced a sharp increase in requests over the past couple of years, resulting in staff having only reviewed 40,000 of over 200,000 emails it needed to review this year, Crawford said. Staff need to examine each email for sensitive information, such as social security numbers or information protected under attorney-client privilege.
“We already have a fee schedule in place. We just don’t go through with them because, generally in the past, we just gave documents out,” Crawford said. “The reason why we are proposing adopting this resolution is due to the substantial amount of email requests that have come in.”
City employees have responsibilities outside of public records requests, and the Public Records Act requires public agencies assist with the records with the “fullest assistance possible.” The public records resolution outlines that the city will spend 20 hours per week fulfilling requests.
The fees are only required for copies of the public records, and anyone can view the documents for free. Only records requested after the November 13 meeting will be subject to the fees.
Nearly all of the eight people who spoke at the hearing had previously been vocal opponents against allowing large manufactured home parks in east Blaine, which council approved at the previous meeting. Speakers expressed concerns over transparency, whether the city was using updated technology to fulfill record requests, and suggested that the city would use the fees to limit requests.
Tina Erwin asserted the fees would not be affordable for residents and said the city already delays producing records.
Glenys Killow said the fees would restrict her ability to receive information when she’s already felt unanswered by the city after sending emails and speaking during meetings over the past year.
“Now you’re going to constrain our ability to get information and never respond to our requests in a timely manner,” Killow said. “This is unacceptable. This is not about fee schedules. This is about limiting our access to information.”
The meeting erupted after mayor Mary Lou Steward asked speaker Donna Newman to stop talking after Newman veered from discussion on public records to manufactured home parks. Newman declined to name herself during the hearing but had identified herself at previous meetings.
“Excuse me, you’re off topic,” Steward said.
“OK, I’ll get right back on,” Newman said.
“You’re done,” Steward and councilmember Mike Hill said in unison.
Shouting reverberated through the chambers as residents backed Newman’s request to finish her last 15 seconds of comment. Newman argued to keep speaking, while councilmembers repeatedly called “order” and attendees shouted “bulls--t.”
“She was off topic. This is a hearing on fees and not on mobile home parks,” Steward said, before calling a recess.
People in the audience then began arguing among themselves as city manager Mike Harmon and Crawford talked with council. A couple of attendees described the council proceedings as fascist, and a group began arguing about politics before one person yelled that they would uncover the truth about the city. Two police officers were called to the building.
Another Blaine resident said he would file a public records violation with the Washington state Office of the Attorney General.
Steward asked another speaker, Bill Becht, to remain on topic after he discussed general concerns during the hearing, but Becht ignored the mayor’s requests. Blaine police lieutenant Michael Munden ushered Becht from the podium after he refused to leave.
A verbal argument once again ensued after Newman requested she be allowed to finish her testimony because Becht spoke off topic.
Four people silently held signs later in the meeting publicizing a citizen-initiated website about the city of Blaine. As city council members transitioned to executive session, two people compared council to Nazi Germany.
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