Last session, the Washington Legislature killed the latest effort to relax the Public Records Act. But such bids are like zombies, so we expect it to rise up and stalk lawmakers again.
House Bill 1128 addressed the purportedly pervasive problem of government workers being harassed by serial records requesters. There are occasional examples of this scattered around the state. At the same time, officials resist the available remedies that would mitigate the alleged harassment.
One problem with the bill was that agencies were left to determine which requests were legitimate. A prime example of why this was a bad idea occurred this week. The town of Coulee Dam received a request for some records from the Washington Coalition of Open Government, which is in the middle of a project seeking to determine the level of harassment and how agencies are responding to it. At present, complaints about the high costs of filling requests are merely anecdotal, but that hasn’t stopped municipalities from lobbying the state for relief.
Apparently not knowing whom he was dealing with, Mayor Quincy Snow replied:
“My clerk has received a public records request from you and I have a problem with that. First of all, are you with the State of Washington or are you a non profit outfit? I know why you are doing this and HE won’t get help this way. I am fed up with this kind of harassment and my clerk has a lot of work on her plate and can’t take the time to play silly games. I will be in contact with my State Senator about this as soon as I get done here. Could you give me a list of all the other towns that have received a letter from you … that is my records request.”
Toby Nixon, president of WCOG, let the mayor know that “HE” wasn’t him, and informed the mayor of his duty under the Public Records Act. Snow’s email exemplifies the attitude of many public officials, who view releasing public information as a bother rather than a service.
Some officials simply don’t know the law. Some know it and don’t care. The Legislature should never allow officials to judge when they’re being harassed, because many legitimate requests would go unfilled.
It’s important to note that the Public Records Act does not require agencies to grind to a halt as they fill requests. If officials complain of this – or of excessive costs – it’s because they’ve skipped past mitigation and gone straight to whining.
An educational primer at the WCOG website notes that officials can: produce records in installments, charge a 10 percent upfront deposit, produce electronic records, put more information online and send links to requesters, organize and index data so requesters can perform their own searches, centralize records archives, and adopt an attitude of releasing records. Searching for exemptions should not be step No. 1.
Government officials should make a good faith effort to abide by the Public Records Act, rather than harass lawmakers.