EDITORIAL | Public Records Act needs an overhaul

A new study by the Washington State Auditor acknowledges the complexities local governments face in complying with the state’s Public Records Act in an electronic environment.

The auditor is suggesting a series of reforms and best practices to help with the issue.

Some of the ideas have their own challenges, but are worth looking at.

The state Legislature asked for the study in response to complaints from cities and counties about the costs of fulfilling open records requests as currently required by law. The study found that it may have cost cities, counties and other agencies as much as $60 million to fulfill those requests last year.

While that’s a lot of money — and likely inflated — fulfilling records requests should be considered part of the regular business of government, no different than fixing roads or doing land-use planning.

Nevertheless, the auditor found that a commitment to the principles of open, accessible and accountable government exists throughout the state. And that is very good news.

The auditor rightly suggests that lawmakers address the complexities in the law, which are largely due to a long and ever-growing list of exemptions. One example is “information obtained regarding the purchases, sales, or production of an individual American ginseng grower or dealer.” What?

The easy and best solution is to cut most of these special-interest exemptions and only keep what is necessary, such as the names of juvenile victims of sexual abuse and appraisals during negotiations for the purchase of real estate.

The auditor also recommends that requests and requesters should be differentiated by their purpose. Perhaps requests for “commercial” purposes could be made a lower priority over a request from the media. Or perhaps there’s a way to deal with people who abuse the system by sending huge numbers of requests to harass an agency. The difficulty will be in determining what category a requests falls into, and who makes that decision.

To help agencies avoid litigation, the auditor suggests an alternative statewide dispute resolution program be implemented. This is a great idea, if it is given some teeth.

The South Whidbey Record regularly asks the state AG’s open government ombudsman for advice on public records problems, but the agencies in question can simply ignore what the AG says.

One of the best ideas from the report is a suggestion that local government disclose information before it is requested. Simply putting as much possible information up on websites would avoid many records requests altogether.

One thing the report addresses is that agencies needlessly exaggerate the costs by sending even the simplest requests to attorneys rather than fulfilling the requests in-house. WhidbeyHealth is notorious for doing this.

There are a few points about the public records law that local government officials should take to heart.

First, they are supposed to err towards openness if there’s a question. Second, just because they are allowed to withhold documents doesn’t always mean they should. Finally, the law specifically says that government agencies cannot be held liable for releasing documents if officials acted in good faith.

One thing is clear, the law needs to be tightened for the benefit of citizens who deserve to know what their government officials are up to.