The point of the state’s critical Public Records Act is that government does not decide what the people should know or not know about it. The law’s oft-quoted preamble states the principle — the public has not surrendered control of the agencies that serve them. They do not give public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know, or not know. The records of government are public, and must be available on request unless specifically exempt.
In the 40 years since its passage some public agencies have been working to turn that law inside out. Someday they could succeed. In this legislative session they could take a step closer to the goal.
House Bill 1128 was inspired by the often-heard complaint that fulfilling requests for public records is sometimes too great a burden to bear. Some requestors of records do it, agencies say, merely for harassment or vendetta, or impose a great expense for merely malicious reasons. The bill as currently written would alleviate this nuisance by letting the offended agency be granted an injunction if a court agrees the records request was made to harass or intimidate, retaliate or punish, threatens security or poses an “undue burden.”
Make a records request government dislikes and you could find yourself in court arguing that you are not a burden. This question you will not decide. That will be done by the judge and the agency that sued you to keep its records secret. This is supposed to be rare practice saved for extremists, but the record shows governments’ desire for secrecy will only grow, step by step.
The bill would allow agencies to set the number of hours they spend fulfilling public records requests to as few as five a month. If an agency spends time equal to 1 percent of its budget on public records work, their efforts thereafter are “presumed reasonable.” So, as critics note, agencies could take a stab at fulfilling the law, and then take some time off.
The bill was set for consideration in the House Local Government Committee Friday, but did not come to a vote. Lawmakers are said to be considering significant changes in language, including removal of the “undue burden” clause, or offering special privileges to the news media.
The conclusion should be, this bill is unnecessary. Injunctions against harassing and unsafe records requests are possible under existing statute, with a higher threshold. If there is sympathy for governments that have difficulty making their records public, and dislike the people making the requests, there should be remedies that fall far short of turning the Public Records Act inside out. If that happens, the days when the public decides what it should know will be numbered.
This is the opinion of The Wenatchee World and its Editorial Board: Publisher Rufus Woods, Editor Cal FitzSimmons and Editorial Page Editor Tracy Warner.