Public access, so pesky

The largest lobbying force in Olympia is comprised of folks hailing from cities, counties and other local governing bodies. They converge on the capitol waving wish lists filled with everything from capital projects, operating programs, special exemptions and local taxing authority.

Lately, local governments have complained they are being assailed by troublemakers who abuse the state’s Public Records Act. They describe city halls and agency offices stretched to the breaking point by massive, malicious, money-wasting requests for documents.

During this year’s session, several legislators – including Reps. Mike Sells and Luis Moscoso of Snohomish County — concocted legal remedies for this purported problem. These public servants were ready to grant local government greater powers to block requests. First, they would limit the amount any office needed to spend to comply with the Public Records Act. And second, they would allow local governments to ask judges to disqualify requesters who seemed mean-spirited or unreasonable.

When the bill failed, interested parties took the issue to the Ruckelshaus Center, a consensus-building program operated by the University of Washington and Washington State University. The center promises a more complete assessment in a few weeks, but already it has suggested the drafted legislation was not well-grounded.

As the Herald’s Jerry Cornfield reports, the bill’s primary author, Rep. Dean Takko of Longview, now concedes the overall burden created by the Public Records Act needs to be studied more exactly. Perceptions and anecdotes told by lobbyists and local officials should not be allowed to trump hard numbers.

Additional research and discussion may foster constructive ideas about how to help local governments cope with open-records requirements. But it would be an unprincipled move to weaken the public’s right to inspect and obtain government documents simply because it is sometimes inconvenient. (A Monroe schools official even dares to call our legal right a “privilege.”)

Maintaining open records is a statutory requirement. Governments should budget for it just as they provide money for roads and public safety and their own new office equipment. Simply claiming that money is tight is no excuse. And when faced with gargantuan requests, local governments have the option of releasing records in phases over a reasonable period of time, as long as the requester receives timely communications.

Finally, the question of “who” is making a request or “why” should never be put on trial. Citizens of all kinds — conservative or liberal, friend or foe — have the right to request documents. Take note that some of the most protracted and expensive fights over public records have occurred when local officials let matters get personal.

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