How do you know when a politician is getting ready to restrict public access to government records? When they say how much they support public access to public records. That was the pattern during a recent hearing in Olympia on a bill to give local governments the right to drag their constituents into court to keep them from getting otherwise public records.
First, elected officials and those who are paid to represent them before the Legislature say how transparent they are and how much they love the sunshine laws of the state. Then they use anecdotes to show that these laws are being abused by a few people bent on harassment, intimidation and punishment. Like some fellow in Pasco who wanted any and all records created by the city for the last 34 years. Or the requests that have threatened the little Snohomish County town of Gold Bar with bankruptcy. (Odd that they didn't also cite the recent ploy by Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon, who condoned staffers' use of records requests aimed at his opponents and even those who cooperated in recent investigations of him).
All of the often-exaggerated horror stories were used to back House Bill 1128, which would authorize the attorneys for cities, counties, school districts and other local governments to ask a judge to enjoin the release of records to requesters deemed unworthy. The bill has been amended to make it less disturbing. But it remains alive despite its remaining shortcomings.
The anecdotes are part of a strategy frequently used by those who resent open-government laws. They praise the law in concept and make a fool of it in detail -- like when council members claim the open-meetings law is so broad it prevents a majority from riding in the same elevator (it doesn't).
The Public Records Act may need revisions. But rather than yet another piecemeal unraveling based on the anecdote du jour -- a process that has led to the creation of more than 300 exemptions -- a comprehensive review is more constructive. And rather than being led by a group of officeholders and their agents who have proved themselves to be anything but friends of open government, it should involve those who use the act. That would include regular citizens who need it to pry into the workings of their governments and watch the spending of their tax dollars.
Remedies already exist
Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform of the Washington Policy Center, opposes HB 1128. He suggests that before lawmakers act on the stories (including some contained in a slick video produced by Pasco and distributed to legislators), they first ask new state Auditor Troy Kelley to take a look at the issue. Kelley appears willing to see how widespread the problem is and what the actual cost of compliance is. Mercier also points out that current law gives governments a way to respond to abuse. No longer must government respond to records requests from inmates. Agencies can now ask requesters to clarify their request, to put down a deposit for expected copying costs, to accept release of documents in installments. If at any time a requester fails to follow these steps, an agency can ignore the request.
The so-called open government community -- of which the news media is a key member -- needs to resist the watering down of PRA. But it also needs to respond to the issue of abuse. We are best off when we stand with regular citizens and should reject attempts in the latest draft of 1128 to exempt the media from the ill-effects of the bill.
But that also means we have to come up with ideas to thwart use of the PRA by abusive spouses, jilted office seekers, stalkers, the mentally unstable and the minions of corrupt officeholders who overwhelm agencies with voluminous requests meant not to shine light on government but to paralyze it.
We can present them after HB 1128 is stopped and once a wider review of the law begins, perhaps as part of Sunshine Week, March 10-16 (sunshineweek.org).