Our Voice: Mid-Columbia legislators wrong to support bill that would weaken open government

March 8, 2013 

We know it can be difficult for government agencies to comply with the state's open records act and that even one unreasonable person can make it tougher to meet the letter of the law.

And if there is a way to protect government from overly burdensome records requests without making the business of government even less transparent to the public, we're willing to listen.

But a Pasco-backed bill that's working its way through the Legislature isn't the answer. House Bill 1128 would allow cities, counties and other government entities to drag requesters into court, where they'd have to defend their desire to review the public record.

The bill would allow a court to grant an injunction against an otherwise legitimate records request if a judge agrees it was made to harass, intimidate, retaliate or punish, threatens security or poses an "undue burden."

It might sound like a reasonable protection against abuse, but the devil is in the details.

In the case of HB 1128, the details amount to another step in the long march to limit public access to government.

When state voters overwhelmingly approved the Washington State Public Records Act in 1972, it included 10 exemptions. Various amendments added by the Legislature over the past 40 years have raised the number of exemptions to more than 300. Every one cut the number of public records that are accessible to the public.

We're detecting a pattern of resistance to open government at city halls, county courthouses and in Olympia.

It seems every legislative session includes a few bills that would make government less accountable to the people. HB 1128 is one of the most egregious this year.

It includes provision that would allow a public agency to adopt a policy that would limit the time officials spend on meeting public records requests to as little as five hours a month.

The bill also would allow agencies to ask someone to clarify an overly broad request for public records, then reject the amended request and ask a judge for an injunction without any further notice to the requester.

The court could even prohibit individuals and whatever entities they might have some control over -- a law firm, for example -- from filing any public records requests in the future.

An exemption for journalists strikes us as cynical and unwieldy. If the hope was to narrow the number of critics lined up against the bill, it hasn't worked. Major newspapers in the state are aligned against HB 1128.

And these days, what's a journalist anyway? Start a blog, get a friend to post an ad on it, and you should be eligible for the journalist's exemption.

Several Mid-Columbia legislators are among the bill's sponsors -- Reps. Terry Nealy, Maureen Walsh and Brad Klippert. Legislative attempts to accommodate requests from local governments are usually fine, but in this case, state lawmakers need to stand up for the people's rights.

The case made by cities for this legislation needs to be taken with a dose of skepticism. Have the cities crying for relief used every available protection against abusive requests before pursuing legislation that would strike at the heart of open government?

Under existing law, any public agency facing an overly broad request can produce requested records in installments, then cancel the remainder of a request if the person seeking the information fails to claim or view an installment.

An agency can require a 10 percent deposit of the cost of making copies and cancel the request if the deposit isn't paid.

A requester also can be required to clarify a records request under existing law, and an agency can ignore requests from those who fail to respond.

It's even possible under existing statute to obtain an injunction against harassing and unsafe records requests.

In other words, HB 1128 isn't needed to protect public agencies and would make government less open and accountable.

Lawmakers can't credibly claim to support open government and vote for measures that restrict public access.

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