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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Washington House bill undermines purpose of public records law

Another bill that would erode the Public Records Act is on the move in Olympia. And once again, the focus is on the folks who fulfill requests, not the intent of the law.

HB 2576 is aimed at the familiar target of “nuisance” requests that supposedly overwhelm officials and bring government to a screeching halt.

At a recent hearing, a Port of Kingston commissioner told legislators that records requests devour 80 percent of the agency’s tax revenue. But, as the Washington Coalition for Open Government notes, almost all of the port’s revenue comes from non-tax sources.

No legislator questioned the commissioner’s statement, which makes the situation sound much worse than it is.

HB 2576 tries to solve the problem of people who obsessively file records requests, but in doing so, it alters the purpose of the law. Plus, the bill may impede the majority of requests, which are legitimate efforts to learn more about government activities.

Abusive requests for records can be a problem, particularly for small government entities. But the extent of the problem isn’t known. A stream of officials relayed their tales of woe in testimony for HB 2576.

Meanwhile, the state Auditor’s Office is gathering data on the time and money taken to fulfill requests. That report is due in August. Lawmakers should kill this bill and await the results.

The Public Records Act already has accommodations for massive requests. Agencies need not drop everything and fill them. They can release information in installments, as long as they’re making a good-faith effort.

Some officials either don’t know this or choose to ignore it. Some end up incurring fines for holding back information until the entire request is filled.

That’s an education problem, not a reason to alter the law.

The bill would put a limit on the hours spent per month filling requests, and it would allow officials to prioritize requests. To do that, they may need to ask people why they want the records. The potential for abuse is obvious.

In deciding what is “routine” and what is a “priority,” officials could keep records under wraps longer to minimize the damage.

For instance, a controversial land deal could be consummated before key information is released. Or, an embarrassing revelation could be suppressed until an election has passed.

The Public Records Act’s purpose is clear: “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.”

HB 2576 would give officials the green light to determine when the public should know. It would harm legitimate requests in a bid to control abusive ones.

Lawmakers should await the results of the audit and return to the drawing board with a much narrower solution.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on “Opinion.”

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