Public records bills should serve openness, not secrecy

Among the public records bills still alive in the Legislature, at least one deserves passage. Two others go too far and infringe on the public’s right to access official records.

The worthy legislation is House Bill 1723, which would make jail booking photos open to the public after a suspect has been charged and arraigned – unless prosecutors determine that release of a photo would compromise an ongoing investigation.

One might think such photos are already available, but that’s not the case statewide. Some jurisdictions release them, while others do not. HB 1723 would create consistency.

Most states release booking photos; Washington and South Dakota are the only states west of the Mississippi River that don’t. Oregon doesn’t even wait until a suspect has been charged; it releases mug shots of arrestees.

HB 1723 strikes the right balance between rights of the accused and the public’s right to know. Legislators should pass it.

Two other bills, however, should either be rejected or significantly changed.

• HB 1684 would let state and local governments charge a per-megabyte rate for digital records requests – which is becoming the more common way people are seeking records.

The problem with that is the rate doesn’t take into account the fact that the size of the file might not reflect the amount of staff time involved with making it available. Some very large files, including audio and video, might take little staff time. But they would be much more costly to the requester than a smaller file that requires heavy redaction to protect privacy.

Governments should be able to recoup at least some of the cost of filling records requests, but the per-megabyte charge isn’t a good way to do that. The Washington Coalition for Open Government agrees and opposes this legislation.

• HB 1917 is a measure backed by law enforcement that would limit public access to 911 recordings and footage shot by policy body cameras, dashboard cams, and surveillance cameras inside jails and prisons.

Agencies would be able to block access to sound and video recordings unless the requester had a court order – and that could be obtained only after the people in the recordings were contacted for their permission. That would be a costly and time-consuming process.

It is true that new technologies provide new public access challenges for government agencies. But their default position should be to figure out how best to accommodate the public, not how best to thwart access. They need to remember that the public is their boss, and access to official records is the public’s right under state law.