Ideally, a law shouldn’t be required to safeguard a citizen’s right to inspect official records and attend official meetings. They are, after all, our records and meetings.
But some public figures have their own reasons for wanting to operate in secret, so those laws are needed.
They come with a price tag. Every year, state and local governments – i.e., taxpayers – spend millions defending themselves in court and sometimes paying penalties because someone tried to dodge the law’s expectations.
Who’s filing those public records suits, reporters? Who’s collecting those payments, public-policy groups?
Actually, says state Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, jail and prison inmates are the most prolific requesters. With lots of time on their hands and usually a law library at their disposal, some prisoners reportedly churn out public records requests, swamping agencies with voluminous demands, not because they have a legitimate interest in the contents, but in hopes that sooner or later an agency worker will fail to respond in time and expose the agency to penalties.
For the agency, it’s a serious liability. For the inmate, it’s a winning lottery ticket.
The challenge facing public-policy makers in Washington is daunting: How do you outlaw inmates’ abusive exploitation of the law while protecting its solid open-government values?
Carrell is one of several lawmakers teaming with Attorney General Rob McKenna to push legislative answers to this and other open-government strategies. Carrell’s bill has the reasonable intent of denying inmates with a track record of frivolous lawsuits from filing them at public expense.
Another measure in a package backed by McKenna would prohibit inmates from collecting the penalties a plaintiff normally receives when a public agency fails to deliver public records as required. That one raises more difficult questions.
As the Legislature takes these issues up, the challenge will be to protect the valid rights of a class with which few people sympathize – lawbreakers – while preserving the fundamental open-government purpose of the law.
Scofflaws shouldn’t be permitted to endanger a valued law by putting it to sinister use. Neither should we accept any erosion of the Public Records Act’s purpose.
We would remind public officials and employees that the surest way to avoid costly problems is to comply blindly and faithfully with the law.