Tomorrow (March 10) marks the beginning of National Sunshine Week - a time dedicated to celebrating the importance of the people's right to know and the need for strong open government laws. Judging from rumors in the House Rules Committee, the sun may continue to shine bright on Washington's landmark public records law. The word is Speaker Chopp has placed a leadership hold on HB 1128 (Regarding local agencies' responses to public records requests), keeping the bill from going to the House floor before Wednesday's cutoff date (March 13). HB 1128 was sent to the Rules Committee nearly a month ago on February 12.
According to the bill report for HB 1128:
- "Authorizes issuance of court injunctions against public records requests made to agencies pursuant to the Public Records Act (PRA) under specific circumstances."
- "Establishes a summary court proceeding for seeking and obtaining an injunction against a public records request as authorized by this section."
- "Authorizes agencies to adopt a policy limiting the number of hours they devote to responding to public records requests, if the agency makes certain documents publicly available and meets other conditions."
Reading through the following provisions of the state's open government laws, one can easily see why providing government the ability to sue citizens to keep from disclosing records and limiting the time spent on responding to the people's right to know is troubling:
- “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.” RCW 42.56.030
- “. . . free and open examination of public records is in the public interest, even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others.” RCW 42.56.550(3)
- “. . . mindful of the right of individuals to privacy and of the desirability of the efficient administration of government, full access to information concerning the conduct of government on every level must be assured as a fundamental and necessary precondition to the sound governance of a free society.” RCW 42.17A.001(11)
- “. . . public confidence in government at all levels is essential and must be promoted by all possible means.” RCW 42.17A.001(5)
Among the statewide editorials expressing concern about HB 1128:
- Spokesman Review: State should keep public records open to the public
- Spokesman Review: Government openness is a blessing, not a burden
Should HB 1128 receive its well deserved fate and not survive the March 13 cutoff, the proponents of the bill and those local governments that believe complying with the provisions of the state's open government laws is too burdensome should work with State Auditor Kelley to see how well the current relief tools are being utilized.
To address the concern of burdensome requests agencies can currently:
- Produce records in installments;
- Cancel the remainder of a request if an installment is not claimed or reviewed by the requester;
- Can require requesters to pay a deposit of up to 10% of the cost of requested copies;
- Cancel a request if the requester refuses to pay the deposit;
- Request clarification of request and cancel request if clarification not given; and
- Post records online and provide electronic records.
Though we still have concerns about the Legislature not consistently complying with its own public notice rules, it appears at least concerning HB 1128, the House Rules Committee is paying closer attention to the importance of strong open government laws.
If this holds true through the March 13 cutoff and HB 1128 does not advance any further, Speaker Chopp will have earned a thank you from advocates of the people's right to know.