With citizens becoming more civically engaged and fearful of tyranny, public agencies should be increasing transparency.
Openness builds trust. It enables people to see what their government is doing and how it’s performing. Officials should encourage this involvement and sharing of work they do for the public.
So it’s troubling that numerous bills proposed by Washington legislators this year would whittle away the state’s Public Records Act, putting more information off-limits and increasing the cost of obtaining records.
They include new fees that would slightly increase agencies’ revenue but reduce accessibility of records belonging to the public. Not a good trade off.
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Higher fees and rule changes are listed in House bills 1594 and 1595, sponsored by State Rep. Joan McBride, a former Kirkland mayor, and State Rep. Terry Nealey, a Dayton attorney.
McBride said she wants “people to be able to get records inexpensively and quickly.”
She expects the bills will be revised to better reach this goal. That’s good, because they have a ways to go still.
Agencies have legitimate concerns about rising costs to duplicate and share records. The act’s current per-page charge is derived from photocopying and doesn’t translate easily to digital files. Digital files are cheaper to duplicate and send, but may be time consuming to procure and sort.
The vast majority of record requests are simple. But agencies do receive some that are voluminous and occasionally malicious, such as requests for every document they possess.
Still, lawmakers must avoid responding to anecdotes about anomalies with rules penalizing everyone. Disclosing records is a core duty, not a burden to be mitigated.
Updates are reasonable and McBride has done outreach with stakeholders over the last year. But more work is needed.
To start, lawmakers should drop per-minute charges for audio and video files that are proposed. This extra layer of fees may make it prohibitively expensive to obtain such files.
A provision allowing agencies to impose “customized service charges” is problematic. It’s vague enough that such charges could be used to gouge or dissuade requests they dislike.
Especially concerning is a section of HB1594 enabling agencies to push requests to mediation, if they decide requests are unclear or dispute their validity. This could force citizens to spend thousands of dollars on lawyers.
“The requester should not be intimidated into dropping their request because they would be forced to pay for mediation,” said Toby Nixon, a Kirkland City Council member and president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, which has numerous concerns about the bills.
Any changes must be in the spirit of the records act, which says government is the people’s business and records must be easily available at minimal cost.
Lawmakers should do more than layer on fees to ease the burden on agencies. They should guide agencies toward best practices.
If agencies are struggling to promptly produce records, start by improving their workflow, forms and filing. As records are generated, they should be stored in ways anticipating disclosure. This could increase efficiency and reduce operating costs.
HB1594 and 1595 float the idea of grants to improve records handling and building an online records portal. Yet they read more like a Comcast fee schedule than a comprehensive plan to refresh the records act for the digital age.
Now more than ever, agencies must be making factual information easier to obtain, not harder.