Lawmaker’s bill another assault on Public Records Act

On the Capitol Campus today, lawmakers are debating a bill that would undermine the transparency of state government by making it more difficult for a citizen to obtain public records.

Ever since Washington voters approved an initiative creating the 1972 Public Records Act – by an overwhelming 72 percent yes vote – public agencies and elected officials have been doing their best to make it less effective.

In its original form, the Public Records Act contained only 10 exemptions, specifying circumstances under which the disclosure of documents to a citizen could be blocked. Our state was a national leader in open government.

There are more than 400 exemptions today, severely limiting access to public information and undermining the transparency of government that was intended by the Public Records Act.

Assistant Majority Whip Dean Takko has launched a new assault on open government with HB 1128. The House committee on local government held a hearing on the bill last week and may decide its fate in executive session today or Friday.

The bill attempts to address concerns by public agencies about the amount of time spent fulfilling citizen requests for public documents. But the proposed legislation goes much too far.

According to the Washington Coalition for Open Government, “Nobody, including WCOG, thinks an agency should be able to be bankrupted by public records requests, or required to set aside all of its other important work and focus only on responding to requests.”

But Takko’s bill would reduce the amount of time a public agency is required to spend on records requests, down to as little a five hours per month. An inefficient agency could conceivably burn through that ceiling in the first week and refuse to honor any further public requests.

In an unsatisfactory attempt to trade off public access for agency efficiencies, the bill would require agencies to post more information online.

But, guess what? The Public Records Act already allows agencies to post documents online as an efficient means of creating transparency and easy access by citizens.

Takko’s bill actually rewards the most inefficient agencies. Agencies bogged down in manual searches for documents – rather than pointing citizens to online links – can quickly exhaust the minimum number of hours they are required to spend on public records requests.

The most egregious section of the bill, however, would allow public agencies to sue a citizen requester to prevent disclosure of documents the agency did not want to release.

Public agencies already have such a right to sue, if the person requesting documents is incarcerated.

Prison inmates initially abused the Public Records Act by flooding agencies with nuisance requests, and legislators correctly responded by allowing agencies to seek injunctions against requests from people serving criminal sentences.

Takko’s bill would extend this right to deprive access to all citizens based on some undefined criteria, and without even giving the citizen his or her day in court. Agencies could literally choose which requests to challenge, putting themselves in the driver’s seat – instead of the public.

That is clearly not the intent of the Public Records Act.

The state Supreme Court agrees. It has ruled several times that the state’s once-leading position on open government is a “mandate for broad disclosure of public records.” In a 1978 case, it said the costs and inconvenience to public agencies are “of insignificant impact compared with the stated purpose of the Act.”

State legislators should act in the best interests of the public, not government agencies, and reject this bad bill.

When faced with a question of whether to disclose too much or too little, an open and transparent government will always choose the former.