In Our Opinion: No matter the nuisance, accessibility to public records is vital

The Public Records Act is based on the concept that the government should be transparent.

While his tactics may not be perfect, South Whidbey resident Eric Hood has been unfairly maligned as someone who exploits the Public Records Law to make money.

The fact that he’s made $1 million in a decade of public records lawsuits doesn’t reflect badly on him, but on all the governmental entities across the state that can’t manage to comply with a law that’s fundamental to democracy.

The Public Records Act is the state’s version of the federal Freedom of Information Act. Both laws are based on the concept that a government for the people and by the people should be transparent to the people.

The fact that many local government officials don’t comply with or understand the law wouldn’t come as a surprise to any seasoned reporter.

This newspaper has dealt with countless public records kerfuffles over the years, from agency officials that wrongly think requesters need to fill out a specific form (a simple email will do) to those that exempt documents for basically no legal reason.

The problem isn’t the law but the attitude of many government agencies that think requests are just nuisances. Many don’t seem to understand that responding to requests is an essential duty of every government agency.

There’s also a profound lack of education about rules. Perhaps part of the problem can be laid on the doorstep of the state Attorney General’s Office, which some have complained doesn’t educate as widely and vigorously as it should — although the website has an easy-to-understand guide. The office of open government ombudsman is just a shadow of what it once was and is no longer a valuable resource for the media.

To understand the importance of public records, one only needs to look at what record requests have exposed over the years.

The examples are legion.

A records request by the Whidbey News-Times regarding the Cascade Mall shooter uncovered documents that offered a glimpse into his life on Whidbey. They showed the young Oak Harbor man hadn’t fallen through the cracks of a social system, but that parents, teachers and multiple psychologists tried hard to help the troubled man over the years.

Another records request revealed that all the relevant officials in the city of Oak Harbor were aware that Native American remains were buried beneath Pioneer Way before it was dug up for a road project. The oversight ended up costing the city millions of dollars to set things right, but nobody was held responsible.

Records obtained by the South Whidbey Record showed that the hospital district bought a piece of property without an appraisal more than a decade ago and paid far above assessed value.

The Seattle Times employed public records to uncover a pedophile priest who was moved from parish to parish and allowed to molest more children; a state lawmaker’s questionable account of his military history; and Seattle police taking longer to respond to domestic violence calls.

In the late 2000s, the Los Angeles Times started doing regular public records requests to smaller communities in California after many of the smaller, watchdog newspapers died in the internet economy. One request led to the discovery officials at the city of Bell, a low-income community with a high number of immigrants, had the highest salaries in the nation. The reporter uncovered incredibly high tax rates and allegations of voter fraud.

The city of Langley is still dealing with three public records lawsuits from Hood.

It’s unclear whether the city or Hood is right about the law or the facts of the cases, which are complex and nuanced.

But any discussion about a possible settlement should begin at a place of respect for the Public Records Act, no matter how annoyed public officials are.