The guiding principle of the Public Records Act is that the public has the right to know what its public employees and agencies are doing.
Washington’s open-government laws, including its bedrock Public Records Act, are not just for the news media.
They ensure that all Washingtonians can see what their public employees and agencies are doing, meaningfully engage with government and make informed choices in elections.
Broad rights to public information, and awareness of them, are important as the traditional news-media industry shrinks and has fewer resources to investigate government and hold public servants accountable. Individuals, advocacy groups and others are increasingly the ones using these tools to shine light on government activity.
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Several recent public-records lawsuits highlight this value of Washington’s Public Records Act to ordinary citizens.
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In Tacoma, the act helped a veteran police officer, David O’Dea, obtain public records related to a 2016 incident in which he declined to shoot a surrounded suspect who deliberately drove into a patrol car.
O’Dea sought records before and after he was fired over the incident and is challenging his termination.
The city illegally withheld 546 pages of material for more than a year, incurring a $1.77 million penalty, Pierce County Superior Court Judge G. Helen Whitener ruled last week.
“These amounts are necessary to deter future misconduct when considering the agency’s size and the facts of this case,” she wrote.
In Yakima County, the city of Wapato recently settled three lawsuits over withholding public records by paying $130,000 to three individuals, including the city’s former police chief, a Yakima attorney and a Wapato resident who inquired about water rates and City Council records.
Some of the record requests were to learn what happened when Wapato’s former mayor, Juan Orozco, resigned in September only to be hired minutes later for a newly created $95,000 a year job as city administrator. That prompted lawsuits alleging violations of the records act and the state Open Public Meetings Act.
“Over the last decade, as the number of investigative reporters working for the professional news media has gone down, unfortunately, I think a lot more of that burden, responsibility, however you want to put it, has been borne by ordinary people who are concerned about how their public agencies are doing,” said Kirkland City Council Member Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
In Kirkland, almost none of the city’s 2,000 to 2,500 records requests per year are from news media. They’re mostly from citizens, including people looking into what’s happening in their area. Many come from city labor unions and employees, Nixon said.
The guiding principle in these situations — and the Legislature’s contemptible, ongoing effort to give itself special exemptions from the Public Records Act — is that the public has the right to know what its public employees and agencies are doing.
As the act states, more eloquently:
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.