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Some information requests not worth the TP they’re asking about

Some of the 4,500 requests for public records received by the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office this year are not worth the toilet paper there’re asking about.

That point was made by Kitsap County Commissioner Josh Brown Monday during a briefing for the proposed 2013 Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office budget, which sought an increase of $900,000 in funding over last year.

Part of defending the sought increase fell on Undersheriff Dennis Bonneville who used a 33 percent increase in public records requests as one supportive basis, among others, to justify his department’s need to keep all of its remaining but shrunken force of 139.

Bonneville told commissioners he expected information requests to increase to an average rate of 27 each workday in 2013. He told the Board of Kitsap County Commissioners that the sheriff’s office had to triple its manpower assigned to public records in order to deal with the “problem” as its grown in recent years.

By “problem” Bonneville meant the costs associated with filling the public records requests made by the thousands annually. The money spent to employ people to collect those records for the public could be spent elsewhere, such as on staff for the filing department or to convert records into an electronic form or crime prevention, he said.

Bonneville could not say specifically what public records requests were costing the county in actual dollar terms, but said the cost could be considered “significant.”

During budget presentations Monday in the BOCC chambers, Brown asked Bonneville to draw a distinction between the frivolous records requests made to the sheriff’s office and those that a “reasonable” person would find “legitimate.”

There is a reason behind the Legislature’s action to take away inmates’ ability to file frivolous lawsuits, Brown said.

Late in the 2011 Legislative session, Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna and current Republican gubernatorial candidate, applauded a bill’s passage that bars an inmate’s ability to receive money from fines levied by the court against any government agency that legally failed to provide public records requests. Before the new law, which he proposed, McKenna claimed that 75 percent of all public records lawsuits in the state came from inmates.

Mason County lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fines in the last 10 years to one family whose records requests were botched in the eyes of the court.

Later, Brown clarified what he meant by “legitimate” records request saying that when an inmate in the county jail makes an information request for the type of toilet paper and soap being used.

“I don’t think its  [reasonable],” Brown said. “[It’s] going fishing for a lawsuit.”

Along with his point, Brown said the county had faced a spate of so-called frivolous lawsuits.

While toilet paper and soap my be frivolous to Brown, inmates across the nation and some in the state, see it otherwise.

The American Civil Liberties Union in 2002 filed suit for what they described as inhumane conditions for prisoners at the Jefferson County Jail in Port Hadlock. At the time, inmates were “forced to use makeshift replacements, such as pages from telephone books, towels or paper bags,” according to the ACLU.

“Conditions at the jail [were] so substandard that they constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Medical care and general conditions are so abysmal that inmates often have to go without toilet paper or feminine hygiene products. It’s a sorry state of affairs,” said ACLU of Washington Legal Program Director Julya Hampton, at the time.

In an ACLU and Jefferson County settlement agreement, the county promised to keep an adequate supply of toilet paper and sanitary napkins on hand and will deliver them to inmates whenever needed. The county also paid $82,000 in ACLU legal expenses for bringing the suit.

Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson Scott Wilson said that the Kitsap County Jail has had some complaints by inmates, but there have been no lawsuits.

“We have never had a visit or a lawsuit from the ACLU,” Wilson said.

Drawing no distinction between the information requests made by the general public and those made by county jail inmates, those at the center of Brown’s concern, Bonneville said as far as he is concerned all request had to be responded to equally by law.

“The bigger the request, the bigger the problem,” Bonneville said. “It takes two minutes to fill out a request. It could take us weeks to fill [it] out.”

Chief Jailer Ned Newman said many of the public records requests come from inmates and former inmates seeking medical records, a process which could be aided by the jail’s plan to spend money in 2013 to upgrade their medical records to an electronic medical records system.

Bonneville later said that more civilians file information requests with the sheriff’s office than prisoners.

According to the department’s 2013 budget presentation, 13 less commissioned deputies are working in the county. At the same time, clerks working public records requests have grown from a single half-time position to three full-time positions.

Also causing increased workloads for the KCSO records division is the doubling of concealed weapons permits. Bonneville said the department expects to process a total of 8,000 concealed weapons permits this year.

Wilson said permit applications to carry a concealed weapon come in cycles which rise and fall based on society’s concerns.

 

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