It makes sense to train those who need to know

The OlympianJanuary 17, 2014 

DONNA SEPTON

FILE - Donna Septon, manager/special services for the Bethel Public Schools. (Dean Koepfler, staff file, 2005)

DEAN J. KOEPFLER

Attorney General Bob Ferguson has proposed common-sense legislation to reduce the tension between government entities and those who make requests for public records. The Legislature should pass it into law.

Ferguson’s bill (HB 2121/SB 5964) states the obvious: Those subject to the Public Records Act (PRA) should receive training on it, as well as the state’s Open Public Meetings Act and records management laws.

At the present time, neither law includes a mandate for training.

In recent years, state and local elected and appointed officials have complained that the burden of complying with requests for public documents – especially frivolous or harassing requests – has interfered with their delivery of services.

But it’s not known whether that’s an unfounded perception created, in part, by a lack of training in the law.

The Olympia School District, for example, could have saved considerable time and expense in 2012 if it had exercised provisions of the existing law.

It filled a records request from a lawyer in litigation with the OSD that required 46,000 pages, according to Superintendent Dick Civitanich. The requester never picked up the material.

If the OSD had been trained on the PRA, it would have known to provide the documents on an installment basis, and required a deposit before starting the request. If any installment was not claimed or reviewed, the district was not obligated to complete the request.

The OSD learned the hard way. Rebecca Japhet, the OSD’s communication director says, “Now that (a district employee) ... has received intensive public records training, we are doing things differently.”

No one expects government entities to go bankrupt or to stop doing its other important work to respond to records requests. But the public can expect public bodies to know the provisions of the law.

State Auditor Troy Kelly has offered local governments access to his agency’s Local Government Performance Center to evaluate their programs for communicating with the public and learning the tools available for simplifying records requests.

The attorney general’s bill – supported by Rep. Sam Hunt and Rep. Chris Reykdal – would require training on open government laws within a specified period and be renewed every four years.

The bill follows up on a situation assessment by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center in December, which was requested by the Legislature last year. The center’s report recommends comprehensive data collection to provide evidence, rather than anecdotal impressions, about the frequency and financial burden of harassing or nuisance records requests.

Among its findings, the center also suggests gathering information on best practices for records management and whether local governments are aware of them.

HB 2121 would make sure that governments know what is and what isn’t expected of them under the law. And that should reduce the frustrations of governments who are making good-faith efforts to be open and transparent.

A healthy democracy depends on an informed electorate. Complying with requests for public records should not be viewed as separate from a government’s work. It is government work.

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