Law would require officials to get training on public record requests

OLYMPIA — Training for the state’s public records and open meeting laws is set to become a requirement this summer for most of those serving in elected office.

A bill heading to the governor requires elected and appointed office-holders to undergo training on the cornerstones of Washington’s open government statutes within 90 days of assuming their duties.

Senate Bill 5964 covers members of city and county councils, school boards, fire commissions and the multitude of other special district commissions. Also, any designated public records official must complete the lessons. State lawmakers, however, are not covered.

The legislation, which Gov. Jay Inslee is likely to sign, would take effect July 1.

Supporters say training will reduce the chance of violations from innocent mistakes and possibly avert expensive legal battles.

“We can ensure that ignorance does not lead that fire district or city or school district into an expensive liability for having denied the public access to records and even worse denied the public access to see what you’re doing,” said Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, before the state House approved it March 7.

Opponents contend this requirement is unnecessary because nearly every public official already is instructed on rules governing public records and meetings.

Rep. David Taylor, R-Moxee, said there’s no evidence the number of lawsuits will decline and in fact could rise if officials think they know the laws well enough to shun legal advice when questions of compliance arise.

“We don’t want to create a belief that then they don’t need expertise,” he said.

A 2012 report of the State Auditor’s Office compiled 250 incidents involving violations of varying proportion of the state’s Public Records Act and Open Meetings Law.

Some were one-time or infrequent occurrences such as inadequately recording and maintaining public meeting minutes. There were more significant instances too including board and council members discussing business and reaching consensus through email rather than in an open meeting.

There have been several incidents in recent years in which public officials failed to disclose public records and, when challenged in court, forced to pay huge fines for not doing so.

Lawmakers cited the auditor’s report in public hearings on the bill early in the session. They also noted the state Supreme Court has held that when deciding penalties for violations of the public records laws, courts can consider whether agency staff received training.

“Open government is vital to a free and informed society,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who had requested the legislation. “This new law will enhance government transparency and ensure that public officials know and understand our state’s public disclosure laws which were overwhelmingly approved by the voters.”

Ferguson’s office already maintains the necessary training materials on its website.

The curriculum for online training consists of lessons on laws and principles for open government, public records, open meetings and managing and retaining public records.

Teaching materials include handbooks, legal guidelines and videos. A sample certificate is available for agencies to replicate to award those who complete the training.

The bill passed on votes of 45-2 in the Senate and 66-31 in the House.

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

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