People who request public documents have a rare opportunity to improve the way state and local agencies answer their requests.
THE Washington Attorney General’s office last week proposed some long-awaited new rules for the way government agencies should handle public-records requests.
The rules should arm citizens with effective tools to hold their government officials and agencies accountable, especially in an era when officials might be tempted to do city business on personal cellphones and other devices.
Citizens should give the AG’s office feedback on its proposal. Already open-government advocates have identified some flaws that need fixing. Among them:
Weigh in on rules for open records
Review the proposed rules at:st.news/openrecords
Deadline for comments is Sept. 29:
By email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
By mail: to Nancy Krier, 1125 Washington Street SE, P.O. Box 40100, Olympia, WA 98504-0100.
Or at a public hearing: 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 4, Columbia Room of the Washington State Capitol in Olympia.
• While the proposal suggests a smarter way to triage records requests, it provides little oversight to ensure the system is working as intended.
The rules would improve agencies’ overall responsiveness to public-records requests by substituting human judgment for the old, problematic first-come-first-served approach. No longer would simple, easy-to-fill requests languish behind longer, more complex requests. Officials would use their judgment to triage requests into categories, which would be worked on simultaneously.
But without performance measures, accountability in such a system is suspect.
• The proposal also does not provide any guidelines for public agencies to keep their documents organized and to prevent their destruction, an important element of the law that has mostly been ignored. New organizational rules may add work on the front end but would ease finding those records later.
• Agencies need more guidance to stop officials from using personal phones and other electronic devices to do government business. This is important because it is too difficult to keep track of government documents on personal devices and to prevent them from being erased. The alternative would be to develop much more complicated rules about downloading information from personal phones into government computers.
The Washington Coalition for Open Government is still studying the proposed new guidelines and encourages others to carefully read the 56-page document and help improve the proposed rules by submitting feedback to the AG’s office.
The proposal would update previous rules adopted in 2007. It reflects updates in the law, both through the Legislature and the courts.
This proposed new policy is a welcome opportunity to tighten up state and local policies on public records. Everyone who uses Washington’s public records law should take a close look at this document and contribute their suggestions to improve the proposed rules.