Here in Olympia, the heart of Washington state’s government, laws are made. Programs are created or scrapped. Billions of tax dollars are spent. Politicians come and go.
To find out how all of this works, and how it affects you, you need an open window to government. For more than 40 years, the state Public Records Act has been that window, allowing anyone to see what’s really going on in state and local government just by asking.
Are campaign promises kept? Who benefits from tax breaks? Is crime rising or falling? Which schools are most successful? Why? No matter whom you are or why you want to know, the Public Records Act requires “promptly” granting your records request so that you can find out information when it matters.
It might be very different if House Speaker Frank Chopp had not used his power to stop an assault on the Public Records Act last year. Under pressure from cities’ lobbyists to move House Bill 1128 to the floor for a vote, Chopp held the bill in the Rules Committee, preserving the right of all people to oversee government in a timely way.
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Today, as the new legislative session once again highlights the importance of protecting the people’s right to know, Chopp will receive the Ballard-Thompson Award from the Washington Coalition for Open Government. The annual award recognizes outstanding dedication to the cause of open government during a legislative session.
Killing House Bill 1128 was the single most important act of any legislator last year. The Washington Coalition for Open Government hopes that honoring Chopp’s efforts, and explaining their impact, will inspire other legislators to join the cause.
Around this time a year ago, city and county lobbyists were pushing hard to pass HB 1128, which was pitched as a cost-saving measure. If enacted, it would have allowed agencies to limit the time they spend processing records requests.
For example, a large agency such as Thurston County, which serves about 250,000 residents, could spend as little as three hours a week responding to all records requests combined. Once an agency reached its processing limit, it could shut down public access to records, no matter how many requests might be pending and regardless of whether a hot issue is about to be decided.
The same bill would have allowed the government, or anyone named in a record requested by a citizen, to sue the citizen to block the processing of the records request. Governments could stop any records request by persuading a court that the requester is just trying to “harass” them, or that the request would “interfere” with their work.
HB 1128 would have invited courts to consider why you want records, what requests you have made in the past, and whether a “burdensome number of records” is involved, in deciding if the government has to give you records. It would have destroyed the bedrock principles that a requester’s identity and interests are irrelevant, that inconvenience is not an excuse to hide records, and that an agency must either promptly disclose a requested record or prove that it falls under one of the law’s narrow exemptions.
HB 1128 is back. It was reintroduced on Jan. 13, and deserves to suffer the same fate as last year.
City and county lobbyists have complained that some records requesters abuse the Public Records Act by asking for too much, and that costs of compliance are excessive. This year, there is a positive answer to these concerns.
HB 2121, sponsored by state Rep. Gerry Pollet, would require training of state and local officials to help them comply with the Public Records Act and state Open Public Meetings Act. By passing HB 2121, the Legislature can make the Public Records Act easier and more affordable to manage, without diminishing the public’s right to know.
When governments are transparent, they build public trust, promote understanding of their actions and help engage citizens. This is beneficial for government officials as well as the people they serve. The Public Records Act ensures that government belongs to the people.
Tell your legislators to join the cause of open government so that Washington will remain the people’s state.
Katherine George is a board member and legal chair of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she is an attorney at Harrison-Benis LLP in Seattle.