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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"Hey, Lay Off Dat Open Records Bunk - Or Else"

Tom Henderson of the Lewiston Tribune (Clarkston, WA and Lewsiton, ID) wrote a fabulous editorial on House Bill 3251, a proposal to prohibit government insurers from dictating public records matters. (Here is more information on the bill and the news story that showed the need for it.) The editorial is reprinted below in its entirety (with permission):

Hey, lay off dat open records bunk - or else

Tom Henderson
January 29, 2008

Do you enjoy pushing people around? Do you like to threaten people
who have done nothing wrong because it makes you feel big and
important? Do you scoff at the law? Does the will of the people mean
nothing to you?

Apply today at the Washington Cities Insurance Authority. The agency
has immediate openings for goons and thugs. No experience necessary.
Guys with no necks preferred.

The agency is supposed to provide liability insurance for local
governments, but it decided to branch out into the goon business when
it threatened the city of Monroe. City officials did nothing wrong.
They just wanted the public to have easier access to, of all things,
public records.

This included records of their conversations with the city attorney,
provided the attorney agreed releasing the records wouldn't cause the
city legal hassles down the road.

City officials deserve some kind of medal. It is rare - to the point
of being bizarre - for custodians of government to be so open with
the people who pay the bills. Secrecy seems to be an almost
involuntary reflex from local school boards to the federal

Rather than praise, however, Monroe received threats. The Washington
Cities Insurance Authority threatened to cut off the city's liability
insurance if it continued this strange obsession with open
government. What is truly scary about this is that the insurance
authority is also a public agency.

If its leaders don't understand public records law, they certainly
have access to people who do.

To refresh the insurance authority's memory, Washington voters passed
the Public Records Act in 1972. "The people of this state do not
yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them," the act
reads. "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."

Government bodies are supposed to release public records unless there
is a compelling reason to keep them locked up.

State Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, understands that. The day
after the Seattle Times reported on the insurance authority's strong-
arm tactics in Monroe, Williams introduced a bill to prohibit it from
dictating policy on public records.

Good. If the insurance authority is going to snarl at people for no
reason, someone needs to snap its leash. - T.H.