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Washington DOC Public Disclosure Overcharges Struck Down

On September 17, 1999, Spokane superior court judge Ellen Clark ruled that the Washington Department of corrections has been overcharging for Public Disclosure Act (PDA) requests. RCW 42.17 allows citizens to seek documents from state and local government agencies. RCW 42.17.300 allows agencies to charge "reasonable fees" for photo copies of such documents.

For years the Washington DOC has charged PDA requesters 35¢ per page for copies of PDA requests. While most government agencies in the state only charge 10-15¢ per page, the DOC charges a higher rate to discourage such requests and make it as expensive as possible for anyone to seek information about DOC operations. The DOC charged 35¢ a page for PDA requests pursuant to its own policy.

However, Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 137-08-110(2), allowed the DOC to charge only 20¢ per page for PDA requests. Derek Gronquist, a prisoner at the Airway Heights corrections center filed suit in Spokane County superior court after he was overcharged for a PDA request. Judge Clark ruled in his favor, finding a violation of the PDA. "The DOC published a fee, in the WAC, of 20 cents per page. There was no basis to charge the plaintiff 35 cents per page."

The court awarded Gronquist, who litigated the action pro se, $450.87 in costs and expenses. The court denied Gronquist damages finding there was no bad faith on the part of the DOC. Instead, the court attributed it to "bureaucratic mismanagement."

The court granted Gronquist declaratory relief that the DOC was violating WAC 137-08-110(2) by overcharging for PDA requests.

Faced with this defeat in court, the DOC has since published notice in the Washington State Register (WSR) that it intends to amend WAC 137-08-110(2) to charge 35¢ per page for PDA requests as well as significantly restrict the means by which prisoners and the public can make PDA requests, and eliminate the mechanism by which incorrect records can be corrected.

People who filed PDA requests with the DOC and who were charged 35¢ per page before this ruling was issued are entitled to a refund of the 15¢ per page difference. The DOC has already agreed to refund the 15¢ difference in PDA requests made by PLN editor Paul Wright from 1996 through 1999. See: Gronquist v. Evans and DOC, Spokane County Superior Court, Case No. 99-2-02113-9.

Washington readers are encouraged to write Kay Wilson Kirby, DOC Public Disclosure Coordinator, to protest the increase in PDA copying fees. No other state agency charges 35¢ a page for PDA requests. The full text of the proposed changes to the DOC's PDA WACs are found in WSR 99-14-017. Contact: Kay Wilson Kirby, DOC Public Disclosure Coordinator, P.O. Box 41114, Olympia, WA 98504; (360) 753-2345.

As PLN goes to press reactionary legislators have introduced HB 2458, which would bar prisoners from requesting any documents or information from any state or local government agency. Unwilling to comply with the law, the government response is to exempt itself from it. PLN will report the outcome of the legislation and WAC change in a future issue.

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Related legal case

Gronquist v. Evans and DOC