SPEAKER of the state House Frank Chopp last session wisely deflected a lobbying offensive by local governments, which sought the power to sue people who filed public records requests that these same bureaucrats considered abusive.
That request renewed the annual legislative battle over the Public Records Act, part of the Watergate-era legacy of clean and open government. On one side are citizens and journalists who see the law as a powerful tool to hold government accountable, albeit a law that needs tweaks. On the other side are public servants who tend to portray it as a costly, time-consuming way for trolls to harass government.
Last week, the defenders of the law were heard in a thorough, nuanced review of the law by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center
at Washington State University.
Among the good recommendations regarding the Public Records Act:
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• Public agencies could streamline records requests with better document management and training, and should routinely post more records online.
• When a record request is denied, the law needs to allow a cheaper alternative for appeal than full litigation.
• The dozens of exemptions that have sprouted up over the years — from archaeological site maps to fireworks sellers’ records — need to be winnowed and simplified.
As for the issue of allegedly abusive records requests, the review said it was “unclear how widespread these problem requests are,” and recommended public agencies gather data, not just anecdotes.
That statement echoed defenders of the Public Records Act. So does the review’s suggestion that local governments use existing tools in the law to address abusive or frivolous requests. Some municipalities, including Kirkland, already have done so.
The Ruckelshaus Center report, which was commissioned by the Legislature after last session’s scrum, raised one last interesting point: the Legislature itself is not covered by the Public Records Act.
Good point. So here’s a resolution: Before the Legislature adds another exemption, or waters down the law one more drop, it first should have to comply with the Public Records Act. It’s only been 41 years since the law was passed.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Lynne K. Varner, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).