As we noted on Tuesday, this is Sunshine Week, a national effort by journalists and others to shine the light of day on abuses of the public's right to know about the actions of their governing officials.
In Tuesday’s editorial, we were sharply critical of House and Senate Democratic leaders who have established a history of squeezing the public out of the legislative arena. By voting bills out of committee before holding a public hearing, by sending a bill directly to the floor, bypassing the committee level entirely and by providing the public with insufficient information about bills headed for public airing, House Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, have trampled on the public process. When the rules are waived – or violated – the public is excluded from the law-making process.
Today we close out Sunshine Week by focusing on legislative bills that have an impact on the public’s right to know.
First, the good news.
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A bill to allow cities and counties to post their legal notices on websites, versus broad publication through newspapers, failed to make it beyond a committee deadline.
Likewise, a bill to charge the public for record requests that take up more than a handful of hours to research, died in the House of Representatives.
It’s also good news that the House has passed SHB 1689 on a strong bipartisan vote of 77-19. That bill gives the public access to jail booking photographs after they have been charged by a prosecutor – which almost always happens within 72 hours of arrest.
When release of the booking photo serves the agenda of law enforcement – such as seeking public assistance to locate a missing suspect – police are usually quick to release the mug shot.
But when police want to withhold the booking photo, they cite a Supreme Court decision that allows them to withhold booking photos from publication.
House Bill 1689 says once a criminal defendant has been charged, the booking photo can be released.
That’s a reasonable compromise that should be approved by the members of the Senate Government Operations, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee and passed by the full Senate.
Substitute House Bill 1899 is more troubling. It passed the House on a lopsided 96-2 vote. The legislation lowers the bottom end of public records act penalties from $5 a day to zero. Supporters say it will give judges more latitude in deciding how much government agencies should be fined for refusing to turn over public records. Under the legislation, fines could range from zero to $100 per day.
If supporters want true judicial discretion for violations of the Public Records Act, then the ceiling should be raised to a maximum of $500 a day.
A few awards at that level might be all it takes to convince public officials to take requests for public records seriously. Unfortunately, some government jurisdictions do not, and throw up one roadblock after another. Egregious violations should draw a $500 a day penalty.
Also of concern is Substitute Senate Bill 5022, requested by Attorney General Rob McKenna, that would define when the statute of limitations begins in public records cases. According to Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers, “It was a small problem when introduced and it was made worse by action taken in the Senate.
Now it almost completely eliminates the need for an agency to respond to a records request – for if they take absolutely no action the statute of limitations begins tolling with the request rather than their final action, which is now the case.”
That’s a concern.
These bills – some good, some bad – show the need for constant vigilance on the part of the public to protect their right to know. Too many government officials forget – even during Sunshine Week – that public records belong to the public.