Editorial: State should keep public records open to the public
Once again, lawmakers in Olympia are trying to kill a gnat with an elephant gun by making it easier for government officials to deflect public records requests.
Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, wants to help allegedly beleaguered agencies by giving them a way to prove that it’s too expensive and time-consuming to fulfill requests. The ostensible targets are gadflies who submit serial requests out of spite, but determining who is sincere and who isn’t is a dicey proposition.
Like its predecessors, Takko’s measure – HB 1128 – would make it easier for agencies to turn away requests without availing themselves of available options for dealing with nuisances. Public records law does not command any agency to come to a grinding halt while filling requests. Officials can dole out the information in installments, or post records online, or email links to requesters. They can also charge an upfront deposit on the cost of making copies, and cancel the search if it isn’t paid.
These options have been pointed out repeatedly by open government advocates, but lawmakers keep returning with bills that would put the burden of proof on requesters, thereby threatening legitimate inquiries. That’s turning the Public Records Act on its head, and the courts have said as much.
Nonetheless, HB 1128 would allow an agency to obtain a court injunction by suing the requester. Then a judge would decide whether the request was legitimate. The bill offers little guidance for making such a judgment, but it does indicate that officials could spend as little as five hours a month on public records requests before pleading that any additional work would be too burdensome.
This bill is right in the wheelhouse for city councils, county commissions, school districts and law enforcement agencies who can’t be bothered with sharing information with the public. The onset of court action would be enough to discourage most requesters.
The onus must be on government officials to show they’ve taken the available steps for handling nuisance requests. As this bill stands, it actually rewards those who are the least transparent or the most unorganized.
An intriguing bill in the Utah Legislature would provide one-stop shopping online for public records all the way down to the municipal level. Before filing cumbersome requests, citizens could search for the information themselves. It would be refreshing for Washington lawmakers to work on this kind of solution, rather than finding new ways to scuttle the intent of the Public Records Act.
In the meantime, legislators can demonstrate their support for open government by killing HB 1128 and rallying behind HB 1714, which would allow for the recording of executive sessions. Under this measure, if someone were to challenge whether public meetings law was violated during a secret session, the recordings could be provided to a judge who would make the determination.
This common sense idea has been rejected repeatedly by the Legislature, which shows that it’s the sincerity of lawmakers – not the public – that ought to be questioned.
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