Bill would require training for officials in public records law

OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers want to make sure those who must abide by the state’s public records law understand how to do that.

Legislation moving through the House and Senate would require elected and appointed officials to receive training on the Public Records Act and Open Meetings Law within months of taking office.

Backers of the bills hope mandating education on open government laws will curtail violations by officials and costly lawsuits against jurisdictions.

“We all too often see that they lack the training necessary to know the basic obligations” of those laws, said Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, sponsor of the House bill, at a hearing this week.

“We’ve also seen the Supreme Court of the state say, in several cases now, that lack of training is a significant potential (for) increase in penalties for violating the Public Records Act,” he told the House Government Operations and Elections Committee. His bill would “reduce those penalties and liabilities because people will know.”

Under House Bill 2121 and Senate Bill 5964, elected leaders and public records officials would have to undergo training within 90 days of assuming their duties. It can be done online, and officials would have to go through additional training every four years.

The Attorney General’s Office already maintains the necessary training materials on its website and intends to update them this month.

Nancy Krier, the open government assistant attorney general, told the House committee that requiring training is a good tool for reducing risk and fostering a “culture of compliance.”

Cities, counties and media organizations all strongly supported the legislation at hearings in the House on Tuesday and in the Senate on Thursday.

But representatives of counties asked lawmakers to also help local governments deal with the problem they see in requests for volumes of records from residents whose intent seems to be to harass community leaders rather than hold them accountable.

James McMahan, executive director of the Washington Association of County Officials, told the Senate Governmental Operations Committee on Thursday that training is always a good thing.

“But I would hate to see the legislators do this bill and check the box that says we fixed any problems that we had in the local government arena in complying with the Public Records Act, because I think it is perhaps this plus some other things,” he said. He was referring to past proposals to give officials more discretion in responding to records requests.

Also this week, lawmakers began discussing a bill to require most public agencies with governing bodies to post agendas online at least 24 hours in advance of a regular meeting. Agencies without a website or with fewer than five employees would be exempt.

“I would characterize this bill as a modest first step at updating the Open Public Meetings Act to reflect our online society,” said Rep. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, sponsor of House Bill 2105.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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