Attorney General Rob McKenna's proposal for a new state open-records office ran into turbulence at its first House committee hearing Thursday, raising immediate questions about its chance of passage this year.
One majority Democrat, Rep. Sherry Appleton of Poulsbo, said she was bothered to see a proposal adding a government function at a time when lawmakers already are cutting programs for the vulnerable.
But McKenna, a Republican, and other backers of House Bill 1044 were quick to point out that costs would be borne by no more than 15 agencies or local governments that agreed to participate in the pilot program at the Office of Administrative Hearings. He said participants would have to opt in and pay a fee to join and to use the system.
“We think participants will be willing to pay for the opportunity to have their dispute resolved more quickly at a much lower cost,” McKenna said in testimony before the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee. The bill is predicted to cost $54,000 its first year and $225,000 through June 2014 if the office is created in January 2012.
Democratic Rep. Chris Hurst of Enumclaw sponsored House Bill 1044 on behalf of McKenna (the companion Senate measure, SB 5237, awaits a hearing). Also testifying in favor were Democratic state Auditor Brian Sonntag, who with McKenna had created a task force of stakeholders in 2009 that agreed that administrative hearings – similar to what states such as Pennsylvania are doing – might save everyone hassles, time and money.
But Appleton and fellow Democratic Rep. John McCoy of Tulalip were skeptical. Appleton has opposed efforts to bolster records-disclosure laws in the past and had the harshest words, demanding of McKenna, “Now, in this day and age with our budget and the amount of vulnerable people who are being cut, why did you come forward to do this now?”
Appleton also suggested that mediators and dispute-resolution centers already exist. Other lawmakers raised questions about costs, and Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County asked about staffing needs for the Office of Administrative Hearings, whose administrative judges would have responsibility to settle disputes.
Rep. Hurst acknowledged there are up-front costs – to hire extra administrative-law judges and start rule-making to put the proposed law into practice. But he and McKenna said costs would be paid by volunteer participants, and Hurst predicted they eventually will save “a fortune.”
Olympia citizen activist Arthur West spoke against the bill. He secured financial penalties against the Port of Olympia and fought other governments over failures to timely provide records.
“I would be the first to speak in favor of a bill that I think would streamline public-records requests,” West said, adding that it would be better if a “trained judge” expert in records law decided the cases instead of hearings judges. He said the real problem is cities and counties that get bad training on the law from their statewide associations.
He said local governments should get training from the AG’s ombudsman, who is expert in records law, instead of from the Washington State Association of Counties and Association of Washington Cities, which he accused of teaching local governments to skirt the disclosure law.
Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County liked the concept and said it was less an act creating a new office than it was adding a division inside the Office of Administrative Hearings. But he also said he’d like to address records requests that are made frivolously or for profit.
Rep. Sam Hunt, the Olympia Democrat who chairs the committee, said he does not know whether the bill can pass. He said he does not know how much support there is on his committee for it.
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 firstname.lastname@example.org www.theolympian.com/politicsblog