Public must retain control

A concerted effort that would make it easier for government agencies to keep information from the public is gaining traction in Olympia. If it succeeds, the concept that government exists to serve the people will be turned on its head.

A bill that was approved by a Senate committee last week, SB 6351, would for the first time allow a government agency to establish limits on the time and money it devotes to process requests for public records. It would also allow agencies to take prolific requesters to court and argue that specific requests amount to agency harassment.

The bill is backed by government officials who complain they or agencies they oversee have been victims of such harassment, which occupies resources better spent on more legitimate tasks.

It’s not that simple. We strongly oppose this bill, as do other newspapers, because it would give government a tool for keeping public information hidden, a tool ripe for abuse. Harassment is subjective, and even if the burden of proving it is on the agency, just the threat of legal action and its costs — simply for exercising one’s rights under state law — would be enough in many cases to make the requester go away.

That’s completely at odds with the intent of our state’s 40-year-old Public Records Act, which strongly favors the disclosure of public documents. They hold the public’s information, after all, not the government’s. A policy of disclosure is the only way for watchdogs to effectively keep an eye on what government is doing in the public’s name.

Now comes SB 6576, scheduled for a hearing today in the Ways &Means Committee. It would require school districts to charge for personnel and other costs incurred responding to public records requests, even allowing the assessment of a 10 percent deposit.

It’s not hard to imagine how this could be used as a hammer to discourage public-record requests.

Current law doesn’t allow agencies to charge for the inspection of public records, for locating public documents, or for making them available for the requester to copy. (Agencies can and do charge for the cost of actually making copies.) It’s a long-recognized part of the cost of doing business as a public agency, in keeping with the central tenet of the Public Records Act: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

These proposals represent a fundamental switch in who is in control of the public’s right to know. The public, which the government exists to serve, must retain that control. These bills are very bad public policy.