Though you can’t always tell by looking outside, this is Sunshine Week, where open government practices are praised and continuing challenges are illuminated.
Any discussion of this issue in Washington state should begin with the key clause from the Public Records Act, passed overwhelmingly by voters in 1972: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”
Public business is the public’s business. So if government officials ask why you want information or what you might do with it, tell them that’s none of their business. Nonetheless, state and local governments lobby the Legislature each year to make the law more convenient for them and less convenient for you. More than 300 exemptions have been adopted over the past four decades.
In recent years, officials have complained to the Legislature about the “excessive” costs of filling records requests and the problems caused by people who flood agencies with inquiries. The problem of serial requests should be considered, but invariably the solutions are too broad. As for costs, the complainers themselves can’t really say what they are.
In response to a proposed bill last year – HB 1128 – that would have allowed cost as a factor for denying a public records request, the Washington Coalition for Open Government asked eight state agencies and 96 local governments covering all 39 counties to provide analyses of this alleged financial burden. As the coalition emphasized in its report last month, “… not one could point to any study or even rudimentary analysis of how much it spent providing records to the public.”
The burden of proof – beyond anecdotes – ought to fall on those seeking a change in the law. The fact that officials couldn’t account for costs also calls into question what they charge the public for copying documents. It’s possible that the price – typically 15 cents per page – is plucked from thin air.
Some governing bodies demonstrated hostility to the coalition’s public records request, according to the report. Others didn’t respond at all, which is itself a violation of the law. HB 1128 was reintroduced this year but mercifully went nowhere.
The legislative session produced some other good news. Governing bodies must now post agendas online in advance of meetings, and public officials must undergo training on open government laws (though legislators exempted themselves). Plus, the state completed its nifty online map of capital and transportation budgets, which allows the public to easily learn about spending by county and legislative districts.
Unfortunately, legislators failed to narrow the scope of “executive privilege,” which governors have invoked to escape public disclosure. In the meantime, Gov. Jay Inslee has said he would refrain from using this legal loophole.
So as far as the legislative session goes, open government advocates were able to let in more sun. But, overall, it’s still too cloudy.