The Seattle Times editorial board opposes Washington Senate Bill 6576, which would allow public school districts to charge a fee for finding records under the Public Records Act.
PUBLIC agencies in Washington keep pushing and prodding for ways around the Public Records Act, which established the wise rule that government records belong to the people. The latest effort, Senate Bill 6576, should be rejected.
The bill is sponsored by Sens. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, and Rodney Tom, D-Medina. It would allow a public school district to charge a “reasonable” fee for finding records and making them available to the public. Today, school districts, like other public agencies, can charge for copying records but not for finding them.
On its face, the bill is deceptively reasonable. Finding records can take time, which costs money. Some people ask for many records. Why not make them pay?
The bill says they would be made to pay not more than “the actual classified personnel costs required to complete the search, review, redact, and copy of the records.”
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The problem with this good-governmentalism is the way bureaucracies actually are. Many of the parents asking for records at a school district are trying to prove something against the school. It could be a search for reasons behind a decision prejudicial to a child. To allow the district to set a meter running creates an incentive to work slowly, to pad the bill, and to run up the cost so that the requester will go away.
Furthermore, the special treatment established by SB 6576 would not go unnoticed.
“It is inevitable that if school districts were given this power, every other agency will ask for it,” says Toby Nixon of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
The better answer is for public agencies to respond to large requests by asking the citizen to be more specific. If the request is still large, the agency should comply in installments, so as not to slow down its ordinary work. The Public Records Act does not require public agencies to drop their other work.
Occasional citizen abuse of the public-records process is a problem. The official abuse of SB 6576 would be a worse problem.