DISCREETLY tucked into the 487-page state operating budget is a proviso requiring the William D. Ruckelshaus Center at Washington State University to study “potential harassment of state employees.”
The alleged source of that harassment? Citizens using the state Public Records Act.
That act, passed in the post-Watergate heyday of open government, is the strongest buttress for clean, transparent local governance. But it is under attack, once again.
During the legislative session, local governments rolled out a handful of anecdotes in which trolls “harassed” public officials by abusing the Public Records Act.
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They complained of ex-employees or malcontents filing massive records requests requiring years of staff time to fill them.
The proposed solution was House Bill 1128, which would have allowed local governments to sue requesters for using the Public Records Act if they deem requests as harassing. Granting municipalities such broad power waters down the Public Records Act, and is akin to attacking a fly with a sledgehammer.
The bill was wisely killed by Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.
But the issue won’t die. The $25,000
study seemingly intends to gather momentum for a new version of HB 1128. WSU should conduct a full, fair analysis, with public-records advocates at the table, before making recommendations later this year.
Clearly, the Public Records Act can be abused. But examples of local governments acting as if the people’s records were state secrets are plentiful.
The simplest solution? Treat the actas a mandate for open government. Post records online. Narrowly interpret exemptions.
And local governments can use existing provisions to limit staff time devoted to fulfilling requests. The City of Kirkland did so last week, blazing a trail for other cities anxious about the costs.
For further guidance, local governments seeking to water down the Public Records Act should read the law, which begins:
“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.”