At a recent hearing on HB 2576, Walter Elliott, Port of Kingston commissioner, made the bold statement “public records requests take 80 percent of our tax revenue”, and that the port had “almost nothing left” to spend on economic development. Nobody asked him for any clarification, leaving the impression that the port spends 80 percent of its revenue, or of its operating budget, on handling records requests.
That was extremely misleading. In fact, the Port of Kingston gets a very small portion of its revenue from taxes — about $190,000 out of a $3.2 million budget. Almost all of their revenue is from non-tax sources. And for them to claim that processing of public records requests left them with “almost nothing” intentionally obfuscated their situation to gain sympathy from legislators and convince them to “do something” — something that would make it more difficult for people to get access to their records through the Public Records Act.
Legislators should not fall for such sob stories, which they hear all too often. The Public Records Act is not broken. It works fine when agencies actually follow the rules and implement the tools already available to them under the law to manage their records request workload. Agencies need to stop complaining, do what the law already allows and move on.
That’s what the City of Kirkland has done, and you don’t see them down in Olympia testifying that radical changes are needed to make it harder to request public records. On the contrary, when Kirkland received a massive public records request from Tim Clemans a few months ago, they didn’t panic and come to Olympia seeking relief. They just applied the rules and procedures they already had in place, added Clemans’ request to their work queue and started working on his first installment. When Clemans finally realized just how long it would take to get all the records he requested and how much work it would be to manually review them, he dropped the request. The system worked. It would have worked even if he hadn’t dropped the request, by breaking it into installments and delivering the records over time. Other agencies should follow Kirkland’s example.
If legislators want to “do something,” they should reject HB 2576, and instead add to the supplemental budget a small amount to cover the cost of convening a stakeholder group this summer. The group should be balanced between representatives of government and open government advocates, not unbalanced in favor of agency interests. The scope of the discussion must be open, so that it is not limited only to concerns raised by agencies; advocates for public records access must be allowed to raise concerns about agency practices as well.
Let’s have a conversation with all the stakeholders in the room, and not pass legislation developed in a government agency echo chamber.
— By Toby Nixon, Washington Coalition for Open Government.