In Our View: Protect Public Information

Misguided state senators promotingtwo bills that work against your rights

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Working against the best interests of their employers (the voters), a few state senators are accelerating this year’s legislative assault on your right to know how your government spends your money. The only good things we can say about Senate Bills 6351 and 6576 is that neither is sponsored by anyone from Clark County.SB 6351 (sponsored by Democratic Sens. Margarita Prentice of Renton and Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island and Republican Dan Swecker of Rochester) would allow a government agency to limit the resources it devotes to processing public records requests. That might sound like the proper advocating of efficient government, but the sheep’s clothing attempts to hide an unprecedented weakening of the state’s cherished Public Records Act. We agree with The Herald in Everett, which strongly opposes the bill “because it would give government a tool for keeping public information hidden, a tool ripe for abuse.”

The second bill is equally offensive, and the process for railroading it through the Legislature is particularly outrageous. SB 6576 would allow school districts to charge for reasonable (staff and administrative) costs of responding to public records requests. Again, that might sound like a good idea, but as The Herald noted, (1) agencies already “can and do charge for the cost of actually making copies” and (2) while this bill is written for school districts, it could set a dangerous precedent for other agencies that would want to conceal public information. SB 6576 is sponsored by Democratic Sens. Lisa Brown of Spokane and Rodney Tom of Medina.

And here’s what makes SB 6576 so infuriating to Washingtonians who expect, deserve and demand above-board actions by their legislators: The Washington Policy Center reported on Tuesday afternoon that this bill was added at 5:29 p.m. Saturday with 39 other bills to the agenda for the Senate Ways and Means Committee’s public hearing on Monday. That required waiving the five-day public-notice requirement for bills headed to public hearings.

But wait. This horror story gets even worse. The WPC said “those who managed to learn of the hearing were provided only 1 minute to testify on the proposed changes to the Public Records Act allowing school districts to charge unknown amounts for access to public records. Only one person testified (Rowland Thompson) and it is clear that he was frustrated with the constraints put on his right to make the case for not adopting SB 6576.” Thompson represents Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and, more generally, the people’s right to know.

Why the rush by SB 6576 promoters? What is there to hide? One good answer comes from Toby Nixon of the Washington Coalition for Open Government: “It is inevitable that if school districts were given this power, every other agency will ask for it.”

We call on Clark County’s three state senators (Republicans Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield and Don Benton of Vancouver, and Democrat Craig Pridemore of Vancouver) to oppose these two bills and hasten their trip to the legislative dust bin. Washington’s lawmakers should pursue the bipartisan goal of protecting the public’s right to know, not eroding it.