Protect access to public records

It’s clear there have been abuses on both sides of the counter when it comes to Washington state’s Public Records Act, which for more than 40 years has required that almost all records held by state and local governments be available to the public.

Government agencies and open government advocates have plenty of anecdotes at the ready to show how abuses are working against the public interests in access to information or the efficient and cost-effective operation of cities, counties and other agencies.

Snohomish County has its own recent examples: A county Superior Court judge last month ruled against a request for records from the county sheriff’s office regarding the murder investigation of an Oso couple. Judge Bruce Weiss issued a temporary restraining order against release of the records for the ongoing investigation. Complicating the issue was that the request was made anonymously, requiring the publishing of legal notices to “notify” those requesting the records.

Last week, county officials reported spending twice as much time responding to public records requests since 2011 and have recently created a full-time position to handle requests for documents.

The Herald’s Noah Haglund reported that while the number of the requests hasn’t changed significantly in the last five years, the time spent processing those records jumped from 7,100 hours to 14,200 hours, much of it in response to “a couple of lawyers and a couple of private citizens.”

With concern growing on both sides of the act, at the request of the Legislature, a few legislators pulled together a group of public officials, open government advocates, members of the media and, yes, even some lawyers, to hash out issues and discuss potential solutions and legislation.

Leading the first of such discussions Wednesday in Bellevue were Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, and Rep. Terry Nealy, R-Dayton.

At the same time, the state Auditor’s Office is completing a report for the Legislature on how various governments and agencies are responding to requirements of the law, what they spend in staff time and costs and what possible remedies and processes they are using to manage their records and fulfill requests. The report, which also is looking at laws and practices of eight other states, is expected by late July or early August.

Among the issues being discussed that might be addressed next session with legislation:

  • Creation of a dispute resolution system that could head off costly lawsuits and resolve delays in release of public records;
  • Judicial guidance regarding anonymous requests that respects the need of some for anonymity while limiting potential abuses;
  • Expanding the act’s provisions to end exemptions for state lawmakers, particularly their emails; and
  • Ways to allow for governments, especially small cities, to recover costs or more affordably meet the provisions of the act.

Just as technology has created some of the problems in managing email and other electronic records, there are advances that could help solve some problems.

Nealy noted the difficulties that small towns, such as places like Starbuck in Eastern Washington and Gold Bar in Snohomish County, have in fulfilling requests with small part-time staffs. Rowland Thompson, representing Allied Daily Newspapers, suggested the creation of a statewide electronic database, which all governments could share in the creation and administration of. Such a database could simplify both record-keeping and release of documents for governments large and small.

There will still be balances and trade-offs to negotiate, including defining legitimate commercial and out-of-state requests and what constitutes harassment and abuse of the system.

But for every anecdote of abuse on either side of the counter, there are hundreds more instances of reasonable requests by the public and the media for information and government agencies who are acting responsively and timely to meet those requests.

Which is all the more reason to resolve the backlogs and inefficiencies in the system and free up the information and records that state residents have paid for and deserve access to.

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