An attempt to thwart access to public records | In Our Opinion

The bill is not yet out of the House, but we’re still not out of the woods.

A frighteningly unnecessary bill in the state House of Representatives — HB 1595 — would make dramatic and foolhardy changes to Washington’s Public Records Act.

Proposed by Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Walla Walla, the legislation would give cities and other governments the ability to run up the bill that residents would have to pay for records requests.

Specifically, HB 1595 would allow governments to charge up to 10 cents per page for electronic documents they email to residents. Governments and municipalities — counties, cities, port districts, school districts and beyond — would also be allowed to charge 10 cents for every minute of an audio or video recording that would be provided to the public under a records request.

According to a page A12 story by Tim Gruver of the Olympia News Bureau, which is sponsored by Washington’s community newspapers, Nealey says the proposed law would help strike “a balance of providing more resources for agencies to manage costs and record retention, while maintaining transparency and public access to public records.”

“We need to update and align the public records requests law with current technology and in the end it’s going to improve transparency,” Nealy said in the article.

“When you have a whole long line of requesters in the queue, and especially a vexatious requester or a burdensome request, it’s going to slow down the ability of that agency to get those records out on legitimate requests.”

It’s impossible to argue that changing technology hasn’t required state officials to occasionally refreshen their view on how to apply the Public Records Act — from preserving emails to tweets to Facebook posts — as much has changed for government officials since the law was passed by Washington voters in 1972.

But it’s also mightily tough to justify changes to the Public Records Act that could make it more difficult for residents to get public documents that offer a window inside the workings of local government at so many different levels.

HB 1595 does just that: It creates a potential financial barrier that could be used by government officials to limit access to information, and could work against transparency in government.

Here are a few examples.

The agenda packet for the Feb. 28 Bainbridge Island City Council meeting was 1,041 pages long. At 10 cents a page, the bill for getting the packet emailed could add up to $104.10.

Looking for a copy of the tape of the Feb. 14 council meeting? The meeting was a long one, and clocking in at 3 hours and 37 minutes, that’s $33.70.

That’s ridiculous, right? A city or some other agency would never charge for such a routine document request, or intentionally try to thwart access to public records, right?

Sorry, but the sting of the City of Bainbridge Island’s last loss in failing to provide public records and adhere to the Public Records Act — which led to a $487,790 settlement a little over two years ago with islanders who were unlawfully denied documents — remains fresh in mind. Another recent reminder: the Port of Kingston, which was ordered to pay $164,000 just last month to a local resident after port officials dragged their feet on responding to her records requests.

We’re skeptical that government agencies can be trusted to not run up the bill on document requests in an attempt to delay or hinder the release of public records, if given the chance.

It’s highly likely that such attempts to circumvent the Public Records Act would expand in future years across Washington state if HB 1595 becomes law, as few residents have the financial ability, even today, to cover the court costs and attorney fees of challenging a government agency when it refuses to provide documents requested under our state’s sunshine law.

HB 1595 has not yet made it to the House floor. Let’s hope this flawed bill never makes it there.