You monkey with language, and a bill in the Legislature quickly betrays its stated mission. (Beware the intersection of marketing and public policy.) Lipstick on a goat is still a goat. That’s the case with HB 1128, a bill dressed in pro-public-records language that will simply obstruct access to public records.
The irony? This marks the beginning of National Sunshine Week, a time to noodle and celebrate access to public information.
For transparency-in-government advocates, the Washington Public Disclosure Act of 1972 is a quasi-sacred document. Initiative 276, which created the law and its public records’ component, was passed in the halcyon, pre-Tim Eyman era of meaningful policymaking. The-then Coalition for Open Government consisted of a diverse crew, from the League of Women Voters to the Young Republicans of King County. The centerpiece was campaign-finance disclosure — which special interests bankrolled whom. The final section was a masterstroke, ensuring that all public records and documents in state and public agencies be available for inspection and copying (a few hundred exemptions were added on later.) The takeaway is that citizens have a right to know about their government.
So why fiddle with civic scripture? Throwing up barriers that target nuisance requesters has a chilling effect, undercutting the spirit of the law. As the act’s preamble reads, “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them.” One bureaucrat’s nuisance requester is another citizen’s gadfly public servant.
HB 1128 authorizes court injunctions against public records requests(!) A similar feature gives the OK to “a summary court proceeding for seeking and obtaining an injunction against a public records request as authorized by this section,” and; permitting “agencies to adopt a policy limiting the number of hours they devote to responding to public records requests, if the agency makes certain documents publicly available.”
The bill’s genesis involved agencies slammed with multiple requests from inveterate requesters. Notwithstanding the curious case of Kevin Hulten, Aaron Reardon’s legislative aide who used online aliases to target the exec’s perceived enemies, sunshine laws don’t make value judgments. The law extends to everyone, as well it should.
As The Washington Policy Center’s Jason Mercier notes, there already are safeguards to tamp down the public-records burden. Agency staff can produce records in installments, and — most obvious of all — they can post records online.
Open government laws, like democracy, are often messy. Messiness is worth the public-access price.