“THE people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. 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. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”
Those are the opening lines of the Washington State Public Records Act, which voters overwhelming approved in 1972 amid the Watergate scandal. Its premise is simple: Sunshine is the best disinfectant against government corruption and overreach. It is the single biggest reason Washington has a reputation for clean government.
Since then, more than 300 exemptions have accumulated, allowing public agencies to withhold everything from health records to information about ginseng growers. Yes, ginseng growers.
This year, lawmakers are considering unprecedented new restrictions on the public’s right to access public information. House Bill 1128, which is now on the House floor, would allow public agencies to go to court and try to block requests they consider harassing or which would “materially interfere” with the work of government.
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This bill was requested by Washington’s cities and counties, who say they are wasting time and money filling overly broad requests by a handful of malcontents, often disgruntled ex-employees.
At a legislative hearing last week, a Spokane County commissioner said one request resulted in 1.6 million emails. School board members from across the state described requests — some aimed at digging up dirt on ex-girlfriends — they said were crippling their legal departments.
Legislators narrowed the scope of the bill to exclude the news media, and to require public agencies to pay attorney fees if a judge finds a request for an injunction to be “frivolous.”
There clearly are abuses of the law. But granting public agencies the power to drag requesters to court sets a dangerous precedent. It is too big a stick for a specific problem.
It is not hard to imagine an overzealous public official using HB 1128 to target a critical activist, or to seek to crimp the investigative efforts of a part-time blogger hunting for the next Watergate.