Published February 19, 2013
Bill takes open records law in wrong direction
The Legislature has a golden opportunity to restore public confidence in Washington’s political system by leaving the doors of government open. State lawmakers should not succumb to pressures being exerted by some cities and counties that want to restrict the public’s right to know. Lawmakers can start by killing HB 1128, which attempts to address concerns by public agencies about the time spent fulfilling requests for public documents. The author of the bill and those lawmakers who signed on in support are clearly uninformed about the relief provisions that already exist in the Public Records Act. To address burdensome requests, any public agency can produce the requested records in installments and even cancel the remainder of a request if an installment isn’t claimed or reviewed. An agency can require requesters to pay a 10 percent deposit of the cost of making document copies and cancel the request if the deposit isn’t paid. Public offices can require clarification of a records request and not respond if the requestor fails to clarify the information being sought. HB 1128 should fail because it rewards public agencies for inefficiency in accessing records with a monthly time limit. That and giving an agency power to sue a requester to prevent disclosure is bad enough. But supporters of the bill cannot demonstrate they are already doing everything provided under our state’s open government law to control the workload and costs of responding to public records requests. A better approach for complaining cities or agencies is to make use of the State Auditor’s Local Government Performance Center to evaluate their programs and services in communicating with the public. State Auditor Troy Kelley has made an offer through the Washington Policy Center to provide agencies with information on the existing tools to ease the perceived burden and review their process. As the Washington Center for Open Government says, “It makes no sense for agencies to demand relief when they have not yet implemented measures already available to them.” Instead of basing legislation on unsubstantiated claims, perhaps clouded by a few egregious situations, performance audits of complaining agencies could lead to constructive reforms that maintain government transparency. After killing HB 1128, lawmakers could support a handful of other bills promoting the virtues of an open government. The House is holding a hearing today on HB 1714, a bill requested by the state auditor authorizing a governing body to record its closed executive session meetings. If questions arise about a closed session within two years, a court could ask to review the recording. And there are other good bills: HB 1197 would require citizens to provide their name and address if they want to comment on the action of a public body; HB 1198 would require training of public officials and employees on the public records act and open meetings; and SB 5640 would require fiscal notes before lawmakers could vote on a bill’s final passage. Those are good pieces of legislation that promote openness in government. Another bill, HB 1721, would require a bill to be on the House or Senate floor for 72 hours since the last amendment before a vote could be taken. Citizens voted for the Public Records Act by a 72 percent margin. It’s a good law with ample provision for agencies to mitigate the time spent responding to public requests. Lawmakers should consider reforms only after requiring agencies to make full use of the existing provisions and after the State Auditor’s Office has analyzed the impact of compliance. The Legislature should not fiddle with this popular law now, and does so at it’s own peril.