Our Voice: Protecting public's right to know and its money tough balancing act

Massive public records requests always leave us in a quandary.

With taxpayers bearing the burden of the costs of producing documents for voluminous requests and the workload taking a toll on staff time, a large request can be an unfair task.

But the public's right to government information is at the core of our system of democracy. Transparency and the right to know how public agencies are spending our money are vital to society's well-being. America's noble experiment in self-government fails when our public servants operate in secrecy.

How to balance our advocacy role for open records with the reality that sometimes these requests are unreasonable and filed for spite leads to many challenging editorial board discussions. How do we protect the real need for access to public information from those wishing to abuse the system for sport?

A recent public records request at Energy Northwest could cost $1.5 million to $3 million to process, the utility reported.

A Portland consulting firm that has worked with the Physicians for Social Responsibility made the request, which could require Energy Northwest to produce up to 155,000 documents.

To cover the cost, Energy Northwest would pass the expense through the Bonneville Power Administration to ratepayers using electricity from the Columbia Generating Station.

With Physicians for Social Responsibility even peripherally involved, we have to wonder if that isn't the point. The anti-nuclear group already has declared the reactor too costly to operate, so heaping on additional costs strengthens its position.

The chairman of Energy Northwest's executive board goes as far as to call the requests harassment.

But is it?

Energy Northwest has received 40 requests from consulting company McCullough Research since February 2013. It has fulfilled 36 of those requests for 2,000 documents. In an average year, Energy Northwest gets 38 public records requests, many of them with a narrow scope.

One of the lingering requests for McCullough Research is much larger -- the largest the utility has ever received -- asking for all documents related to a 2012 deal to take possession of depleted uranium stored by the Department of Energy.

Energy Northwest paid $700 million to enrich the uranium at a Kentucky plant, keeping it in operation longer. It then sold some of the fuel to offset the costs.

Energy Northwest said it was a good long-term deal for ratepayers because it bought the fuel at a favorable rate and helped to stabilize fuel prices. But Physicians for Social Responsibility had questions about whether politics rather than smart business decisions were behind the deal. A Newsweek article in January raised similar concerns. Even though its contract with the Physicians for Social Responsibility has ended, McCullough Research is continuing to question the deal.

Energy Northwest said it would take current staff two years to fill the request, and based its cost estimate on a 4,000 document request by another organization. It comes out to about $14 per page. Energy Northwest says budget cuts may be necessary in other areas to allow it to hire an outside firm or additional staff to expedite the process.

Doing nothing is not an option, as the University of Washington recently learned. That institution was fined $700,000 for failing to fulfill a public records request.

When Energy Northwest gets a large request like this, it usually asks the requester if it's possible to narrow the scope. It said McCullough Research has refused. We think they should reconsider.

Valid reasons exist for people and organizations to question the workings of public agencies, governments and deals of all sizes. The origins of this deal are certainly information the public should be privy to, but there may be a more direct route to the information than 155,000 pages of information.

By working to narrow the scope of its request, McCullough Research can make it clear that its goal is to uncover the truth, not just lash out at Energy Northwest and its ratepayers.