Sunshine Week: Public records are essential

Lacey city manager Scott Pence looks over some of the estimated 80,000 pictures that his staff are pulling to fulfill a public records request for “every photo” in the city archive, shown at Lacey City Hall.
Lacey city manager Scott Pence looks over some of the estimated 80,000 pictures that his staff are pulling to fulfill a public records request for “every photo” in the city archive, shown at Lacey City Hall. toverman@theolympian.com

The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected. In the event of conflict between the provisions of this chapter and any other act, the provisions of this chapter shall govern — Washington Public Records Act, R.C.W. 42.56.30.

Public access to government records and data is vital to democracy. Records are a go-to tool for anyone wanting to glimpse the inner workings of government.

Without windows and doors of government that are wiped clean and kept open, government cannot easily be held accountable to the people it serves.

But transparency in government is never a given. The public, like newspapers, must be prepared to fight for meaningful access. And also pay for it.

We trumpet this message today as we mark the beginning of Sunshine Week, which U.S. newspapers and open-government advocates observe each year.

Overall, there was backward movement at the federal level under President Obama, and we worry what direction President Trump may move the nation. Some agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, have been removing climate change information and other data from web sites that the public needs.

And Trump’s overall secrecy around his taxes and financial entanglements around the world raise questions about hidden conflicts of interest.

Locally, the tug and pull between the public and both state and local governments continues.

Toby Nixon, leader of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, which includes newspapers like The Olympian, said he’s encouraged by recent state court rulings in favor of disclosure. One found cell-phone texts of public officials can be considered public records.

Another decision, released last week, forces the University of Washington to disclose hidden information. A King County Superior Court judge found the UW violated records law by redacting key details — such as the names of doctors and claimants — in malpractice settlements reached between UW Medical Center, its affiliated healthcare organizations and plaintiffs injured by UW doctors.

Yet another ruling by the state Supreme Court clarified last year that a judge can levy fines for wrongfully withheld records on a per-page, as well as a per-document basis. This case dealt with records the state Department of Labor and Industries withheld from the Seattle Times.

Unfortunately, agencies at all levels of government sometimes resist disclosure. One reason is that records disclosure can cost money and tie up staffing. This is especially true for small agencies or jurisdictions that have few employees to deal with huge requests for data or information.

One request at the city of Lacey covered all records city manager Scott Spence created in his 16 years at the city. Another request is for 80,000 historical photos.

Spence favors changes to bring the law into sync with the realities of our electronic records era, and we share his goal. But the common answer sought by local governments year after year has been the wrong one — seeking ways to get around requests. Popular targets are people with grudges who use requests to tie up governments resources.

A better answer is investment in better records management and software tools, which Lacey is about to make. These make it easier to store and search for records responsive to requests. Another tactic is to post more electronic records online, which the city of Kirkland (where Nixon serves on the council) is doing proactively.

Another suggestion for governments is that they budget more generously for the expense, knowing that they must be accountable.

The Legislature isn’t always a friend to disclosure. Lawmakers exempt themselves from the PRA and open meetings acts. And lawmakers have been slow to remove exemptions in the PRA.

But in 2017, lawmakers deserve credit for moving toward compromise on two bills — House Bill 1594 and HB 1595 — which may settle some disputes between open-government advocates and local government officials.

Early bill versions, which emerged from a legisative task force, would have imposed costs on records requesters in a way that limited access. But Nixon believes compromise language will protect public access and allow small but workable charges for copying electronic records without making it harder to obtain access to records.

Overall this is the right direction.