A recent report from the state Auditor’s Office says state and local governments spent $60 million to fill more than 285,000 public-records requests during a recent 12-month period. While the cost may sound alarming, the report should not be used to shut down public access to government records.
In fact, Washington should be celebrating this important way of helping citizens keep track of their governments. Any changes to the state Public Records Act should make information easier to access, not more difficult.
The $60 million cost is a relative bargain, representing about one-tenth of 1 percent of the cost to run Washington’s state and local governments. (The total cost is likely higher because not every government agency responded to the auditor’s request for information for the report.)
As the auditor’s report prepared at the behest of the Legislature begins, “Transparency and accountability are essential components of good government.”
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But the report goes on to express concerns about the way the open-records law is making life difficult for state and local governments. The report says the explosion of information available and the cost to store and organize it is a burden on government agencies.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, worries that the report could be used to weaken the state’s records laws. The citizens of Washington want and need a strong open-records law. As the auditor’s report acknowledges, “Full access to public records helps maintain public confidence in government at all levels.”
If government budgets are overburdened, one way to cut the cost of responding to records requests would be to automatically post more information online for everyone to see.”
If government budgets are overburdened, one way to cut the cost of responding to records requests would be to automatically post more information online for everyone to see. The report makes some good suggestions: Disclose information before it is asked for and organize records for easy search and retrieval.
Other suggestions are troubling, such as, “Collect and retain only necessary records.”
Necessary to whom? Who decides what is necessary?
The report points out that some of the government costs involve attorney fees, mostly because local records officers need legal help to navigate the state’s complicated law, which, as of 2016, had more than 400 exemptions. The law should be simplified by eliminating some of those exemptions.
Transparency is essential to democracy. It’s how citizens keep track of their government’s actions. The Legislature should tread carefully before making any changes to the state Public Records Act that would make it more difficult for the public and the press to watch over their governments.