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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Vancouver leads way on public records access

The Columbian
Published: July 10, 2024, 6:03am

The premise, as spelled out in Washington’s Public Records Act, is simple.

“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,” reads the law, which passed with 72 percent of the statewide vote in 1972. “The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

In that regard, Vancouver provides a shining example. As detailed in a recent article by media outlet InvestigateWest, city officials diligently perform their duty as public servants while working to keep the people informed.

In order to test the responsiveness of government, Investigate West made similar public records requests to 15 cities — the five largest in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The result: “Vancouver was the clear winner, completing both requests — including over 1,800 pages worth of emails and texts — within just eight days. And unlike Portland, which asked InvestigateWest to pay $1,800 for communications involving the city’s mayor or chief of staff, Vancouver didn’t charge a dime.”

In contrast, Spokane took 129 days to provide records from a specific 12-month period. The news outlet reported: “In Washington’s largest cities, the delays for some types of records could stretch out months, while the records fees in Oregon and Idaho could run into the hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars.”

The experiment shines a spotlight on an important but increasingly difficult aspect of government. While responding to public records requests remains an essential aspect of democracy, reality can be more complicated. As doubts about civic institutions have increased in recent years, so have the number of requests for public records. These requests often are specious, designed as much to stir up trouble as they are to glean information.

As one prolific Portland requester told InvestigateWest: “I enjoy torturing city personnel because it really is the only way we citizens can get some payback.” He added that he “might as well make every day of their life an unendurable hell until they decide on a different career.”

Such is the difficulty faced by officials at all levels of government. From 2018 to 2022, according to data from the Legislature, the number of requests for public records increased by more than one-third. That expands the time and cost involved with providing, say, the mayor’s emails or the discipline record of a specific police officer.

In some documented cases, government entities have stonewalled requests for information. But in most situations, lengthy delays are simply a matter of public agencies being understaffed and overworked. When a gadfly’s goal is to make you reconsider your career, it can be daunting.

That, however, does not mitigate the importance of quickly fulfilling records requests. As the U.S. Supreme Court has written, the federal Freedom of Information Act is “needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.”

At the state level, that requires a commitment from the Legislature. Lawmakers have a duty to assist municipalities with funding and technology to better serve the public and fulfill requests. While some requests might be designed to abuse the privilege, such judgments are not up to government officials.

In Washington, after all, the people “do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know.”