Keeping government open

By Scott Wilson

Publisher, Port Townsend Leader

Once again, our local elected representatives gathered under the great marble dome of the Capitol in Olympia and once again they were greeted by dozens of lobbyists from public agencies or the nonprofit lobby groups for public agencies, all of them are ultimately funded by your tax or rate dollars.

The Public Disclosure Commission reports that of the $4.8 million spent in the last 12 months on lobbying, the leading topical category on which money is spent is "Government," at $609,000.

Consistently among the top spenders on lobbying in Olympia is the 82,000-strong Washington State teachers' union, the Washington Education Association, for whom higher teacher salaries are almost always at the top of the wish list. The WEA spends between $130,000 and $150,000 a year on its lobbying efforts.

Spending less but working just as hard are the lobbying branches for the state's cities (Association of Washington Cities), the state's counties (Washington State Association of Counties), and associations representing the other key local public entities like ports and public utility districts.

One of their favorite targets through the years is the state Public Disclosure Act, passed by voter initiative with 72 percent support (the Legislature sure as heck wasn't going to do it on its own) in 1972, and its companion measure, the Open Public Meetings Act, passed by the Legislature (under threat of initiative) the following year.

These are the laws that declare, in words that summarize Thomas Jefferson's political philosophy:

"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. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected."

Once the laws were passed, citizens did indeed exercise their right to remain informed. They requested documents. Sometimes these requests were narrow and specific - and easy to fulfill. But sometimes they were broad, asked for a lot of records, and sometimes they asked for records that would be embarrassing to the agency or its director. The public agencies were often rankled at this, not really happy about barbarians coming over the counter and looking through files. I mean, these outsiders were acting as if they owned the place!

Almost every year, the public agency lobbies get together and push a bill in Olympia to partially dismantle the Public Disclosure Act, or at least to give public agencies much more leeway to determine "what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know."

They did so again in January and February of 2016. House Bill 2576 would have amended the law so agencies could:

- Limit the number of hours an agency devotes to responding to public records requests.

- Adopt procedures to prioritize requests according to criteria that the agency itself sets. One criteria is "avoiding excessive interference with other essential functions."

- Allow unfulfilled requests to roll over into the following month.

- Have the state establish a Public Records Commission, membership appointed by the Governor, and an Open Records Account, funded via 20 percent of the punishment amounts awarded by courts to denied requestors, to serve as an administrative court to rule on records disputes between citizens and agencies.

This bill was pushed by public officials or employees like Walter Elliott, Port of Kingston commissioner, who told the Legislature that "public records requests take 80 percent of our tax revenue", and that the port had "almost nothing left" to spend on economic development. That is a ridiculous claim, but one that nobody in the committee hearing bothered to challenge.

Fortunately, defenders of the public's right to know - newspapers and other media, the Washington Coalition for Open Government, civil liberties lobbies - defended the Public Disclosure Act, and only a couple of days ago, the Legislature gave in, killing HB 2576. For this session, at least.

I guarantee you the public lobbyists will be back next year. Every year they get a little further in the Legislative process to gut the open government laws that the citizens enacted.

The Public Records Act needs some fine-tuning. It's not broken, but in some cases commercial entities pursue information then re-sell that information to make a profit. In other cases angry people use the act to request massive volumes of reports in retaliation for some perceived slight.

But giving the targeted public agency more tools and excuses to say "hands off!" puts them in the position of denying legitimate requests as well. Much more thought must go into how to limit the excesses, and it's a pretty sure thing that the public agency lobbyists are not the right people to decide.

As Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government told the Legislature, "let's have a conversation with all the stakeholders in the room, and not pass legislation developed in a government agency echo chamber."

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