Don’t chip away at public disclosure laws

The News TribuneFebruary 28, 2013 

For public officials, laws requiring government transparency can be a royal pain. We get that.

Those laws mean they have to publicize meetings and allow in citizens who might be quarrelsome or reporters who might ask uncomfortable questions.

And those laws mean they have to respond to citizens and media representatives requesting public records – even requests that might be time-consuming or seem unreasonable.

But open-government laws are on the books for a reason: Government that can operate in the shadows is not as responsive to the public it serves as government that must operate with citizen and media oversight. The so-called “sunshine laws” are designed to shed light on whether public officials are carrying out their duties properly.

We see no reason to water down those laws, something that is being attempted in several bills before the Legislature. Of highest concern are the following bills designed to reduce access to public records:

 • House Bill 1037 would allow agencies to ask how requested public records would be used and decide whether that constitutes a commercial use for which a fee could be charged.

The bill is vague and confusing. Purportedly aimed at interstate data-mining companies, it’s overly broad and gives individual agencies too much leeway in deciding which requesters should be charged.

 • House Bill 1128 would allow agencies to seek injunctions blocking requests they deem to be aimed at harassing or intimidating them or their employees.

Proponents have cited a few examples of outrageous records requests to make their case to limit public access, but existing law offers sufficient relief for agencies. Although substitute language significantly improves the bill, it’s not enough to make HB 1128 worth passing.

 • The legislation with the most potential to interfere with the public’s right to know – as well as with public safety – is House Bill 1651. It would keep secret juvenile criminal records, from arrest to conviction, in all cases except the most serious violent and sexual crimes. No dockets could be produced because they would show defendants’ names.

This bill would seriously impede citizen and media oversight of the justice system. How can officials be held accountable for their decisions regarding juvenile offenders if judicial proceedings are under wraps?

At first glance, these bills might seem harmless. But they would chip away at open government that Washington voters overwhelmingly said they wanted in 1972. Public officials have a duty to err on the side of the people’s right to know.

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