Battle to restrict public records requests heats up

Those looking for a more transparent government are increasingly relying on public records to make it happen.

They hope the more documents they obtain the clearer their view of what’s really going on behind closed doors in school districts, city halls and county buildings.

But there are those throughout the public sector convinced some of these Washingtonians are abusing the Public Records Act.

An alliance of government forces — whose members often are the targets of the records — tried unsuccessfully earlier this year to rewrite the act to make it easier to repel requesters whose motives they question.

With the help of Republican and Democratic lawmakers, they pushed a bill to make it easier for public agencies to block requests and to limit the time spent compiling records.

Though the bill died in the legislative process, the matter reappeared in the state budget in the form of a provision to spend $25,000 contemplating ways to help governments deal with records requests they consider harassing.

Lawmakers tapped the Ruckelshaus Center, a joint venture of the University of Washington and Washington State University, to facilitate a conversation between those in the alliance and those who viewed the failed bill as an unprecedented attack on citizens’ right to petition their government. By Dec. 15, the center is supposed to put forth recommendations.

The effort is just getting off the ground and folks at the center are tamping down expectations what will emerge.

Michael Kern, the center director, said this week the time frame is too tight to pull the parties together for fruitful face-to-face sessions presuming everybody on all sides is interested in doing so.

The game plan is to speak with 20 to 30 people who’ve been visible and vocal in the legislative conflict then prepare an assessment of the situation based on what center staff hears in the interviews.

“We’ll report what the diverse interests say,” he said. “It will not include our opinions because we don’t have opinions. We are a neutral third party.”

That’s not quite what Democratic Rep. Dean Takko of Longview envisioned when he helped persuade leaders of his party to put the proviso in the budget. Takko, who sponsored the failed bill, hoped the skilled forces at the center could blaze a trail lawmakers could not.

“Myself and quite a number of other people think there’s something we need to address,” said Takko, a former Cowlitz County assessor and Cathlamet City Council member. “I don’t think anybody wants to hide public records. What we’re trying to do is stop frivolous requests.”

Now, he’ll take whatever they provide this winter as a possible starting point for legislation in 2014.

“In all honesty, we probably will not be a whole lot further than when the session ended,” he said. “It’s a big enough issue that we have to take some baby steps forward.”

Another person interested in talking with Kern’s team is Jason Mercier, an analyst with the Washington Policy Center and member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. The coalition strongly opposed Takko’s bill.

He sees no reason to change the Public Records Act. The problem isn’t the law, he said, but officials understanding of it. Many do not realize what tools are already available to them when someone submits one of those so-called burdensome requests.

He suggested lawmakers asked the wrong question with the budget proviso. Leaders in local governments say hefty requests can chew up staff time and taxpayer dollars but there’s no data on how much time and money is wasted to back up their claims, he said. Getting the answer would really inform the discussion, he said.

Sounds like something a public records request, or two, could clear up.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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