The Public Records Act is under attack once again from public agencies who must abide by it.
THE state Public Records Act is the sharpest tool citizens have to monitor their government. Its fierce preamble, “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them,” sends an unambiguous message to public agencies. And if that’s not enough, governments face stiff fines when they fail to comply.
This legislative session, once again, public agencies seek to blunt the edge of this tool. The justification this year is the overly broad — and in some cases intentionally harassing — requests for documents filed by a handful of public-record trolls.
At recent hearings in Olympia, lawmakers heard the pleas of cities, counties, port and fire districts to ease the burden of complying. Anecdotal stories described agencies wheezing under the weight of filling requests for “all documents” ever created by agencies.
The fix for this tiny subset of absurd requests is straightforward. But instead of stopping there, legislation pending on the floor of the state House, SSHB 2576, proposes giving public agencies new authority to interpret the value of requests for records and giving governments the power to prioritize requests.
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If granted this breathtakingly expansive authority, it is easy to imagine misuse or even abuse. A citizen activist seeking to dig up details of a messy development or a suburban blogger bugging a city about the engineering of a faulty intersection could get shoved to the back of the line.
Similarly, efforts of mainstream investigative journalists could be slowed because their requests are not “routine,” which is one of the criteria public agencies could use to prioritize requests.
Before monkeying around with the Public Records Act, the Legislature should wait for an upcoming survey of local government’s handling of disclosure requests. The state Auditor’s Office is planning to finish it this fall. After all, lawmakers themselves asked for the survey.
Based on good data — and not just anecdotes — local governments should work hand-in-hand with open government advocates to craft narrowly tailored tweaks to the Public Records Act. That didn’t happen before this recent attack was filed. No wonder it is getting a frosty-cold reception from citizens and journalists who rely on it.
The Public Records Act was passed as an initiative back in 1972, and has been under steady attack by government agencies ever since. The Legislature even exempted itself from disclosure requirements. If lawmakers must tweak the law this session, start there.