PORT ANGELES — Public records management will remain a top priority for Clallam County in 2017, officials said.
Clallam County took steps to improve its Public Records Act compliance in 2016 and will continue to fine-tune a public records policy and associated ordinance in the coming year, county Commissioner Mark Ozias said.
“I think that we’ve made some significant progress in this arena this year,” Ozias said in a Dec. 19 work session.
“It is messy and complicated, and I think that when we’re sitting here talking about it at this time next year, we’re going to find that we’ll have made substantial additional progress.
“I am confident that we’re going to nail this,” he added.
Clallam County paid $518,000 last July to settle Public Records Act litigation with Scott and Elizabeth Lange, who sued the county in 2014 for failing to produce land-use documents they requested starting in 2009 and running into 2013.
Thousands of pages of documents that were sought by the Langes were discovered this year in a labeled box in a locked storage room in the basement of the Clallam County Courthouse and on a secured electronic file folder, the Prosecuting Attorney’s office has said.
While costly, the negotiated settlement resulted in a 1-acre park with public beach access in Clallam Bay.
In response to the Lange case, a group of county officials began meeting to develop a work plan to improve public records management.
Two subgroups were formed to focus on Public Records Act training and a public records ordinance/policy.
All county employees will receive the training, said Clerk of the Board Trish Holden, who will become a full-time public records officer next Tuesday.
The 2017 county budget includes $50,000 for content management software that will provide a “really good way to search for records,” Holden said in the work session.
A mapping function in the software will improve the efficiency of public records searches and help to identify responsive records that might have been missed, officials said.
“This software will help us get our hands around our electronic records,” Ozias said.
Meanwhile, risk management hired three part-time archivists to cull paper records, scan them into an electronic format, transfer them to the state archives or destroy them, depending on the nature of the document.
“They’re in HR [Human Resources] right now and DCD [Department of Community Development],” Holden said.
“I believe when they finish, the plan then is that they will go to each department and get their records in order.”
A public records specialist in each department will then be responsible for maintaining that department’s public records. Holden will work with the specialists to ensure compliance.
The archivists have focused their initial efforts on departments that receive the most public records requests and have the most data, Human Resources Director Rich Sill told the board.
“I have no doubt that our paper records are going to be in fantastic shape by the time this process is finished,” Ozias said.
“I’m very keen to make sure that we have thought through, and are paying real close attention to, maintaining that level of organization as we move forward.”
Early next year, Holden and information technology officials will develop a plan to eliminate electronic records that are no longer needed.
“I think we’re moving forward with the paper portion really well,” Holden said.
“Where we’re lagging is the electronic piece.”
At least one department has electronic user directories for former employees who have not worked at the county in eight to 10 years, Holden said.
Searching through individual folders, she added, “makes it difficult to search for any records.”
“I have to reach out to an individual in that department and ask them to search all the directories for all the records in their department,” Holden said.
“There’s got to be a better way to do that.”
County Treasurer Selinda Barkhuis, who is part of the subgroup working on the public records ordinance and policy, said she planned to make a power point presentation on her perspective of the Lange case early next year.
“I have not had an opportunity to explain how I fit into this,” Barkhuis said.
Barkhuis will also share her perspective on a public records-related lawsuit that the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office filed against her last spring and a public records request that she received, she said.
The prosecutor’s office filed a complaint for declaratory relief and petition for writ of mandamus against Barkhuis in late March.
The civil action, which also named the Peninsula Daily News, asked a judge to determine whether the county complied with its statutory obligations under the Public Records Act when it processed a Nov. 25, 2015, request from the PDN for certain emails from Barkhuis’ work and personal accounts.
The case was dismissed at the request of commissioners shortly after it was filed in Superior Court.
“We’ve heard the county’s perspective, we’ve heard the prosecutor’s perspective, but I have not had an opportunity to share my perspective,” Barkhuis said.
Barkhuis said she received a public records request from a citizen for all the emails that she had sent and received as treasurer.
She said it would take her three years to search 40,000 emails for responsive records to fulfill that request.
“So there’s three major issues, one that cost over $500,000, one that named me as a defendant and one that keeps me very busy every single month,” Barkhuis told commissioners.
“I think I have a lot to say that I haven’t had an opportunity to say. That’s what I’m hoping for, is an opportunity to present my perspective.
“Then I think we can move forward learning the lessons we need to learn, if we’re going to learn lessons at the county, and address those lessons in the ordinance and in the policy, because I’m not seeing those lessons being addressed at all,” she added.
Ozias said he would welcome the treasurer’s unique perspective on public records.
“The most important [point] is that we learn from our mistakes, and that we evolve our system moving forward such that it work as broadly as possible,” Ozias said.
Commissioner Bill Peach said public records requests — and who pays for them — are a top legislative priority of the Washington State Association of Counties.
“Right now, we don’t receive any compensation, and that’s what’s being proposed,” Peach said.
“The simple fact of the matter is, at least from my contact with other counties, this issue is increasing almost exponentially. And unless we get a handle on it pretty quick here, it will be very, very expensive.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected] dailynews.com.