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Friday, January 2, 2009

Spokesman-Review Editorial on Public Records Panel

A bill will be introduced to study the feasibility of a panel to decide public records cases, which would be less expensive and time-consuming for requestors and agencies alike.

The Spokesman-Review editorializes in favor of the bill. The editorial is reprinted below.

In Washington state, citizens who request public records are sometimes turned down, even when the law is on their side. Their only recourse, going to court, can be expensive, time-consuming and daunting.

So they can either shrug and drop the matter, or initiate legal action and accept the financial burdens that implies – for an uncertain outcome.

Having the law on your side doesn’t mean a lot if you don’t have the resources to set the law in motion.

That’s embarrassing in the state that helped pioneer open-government movements when they were taking off in the 1970s. Some other states, which ultimately followed Washington’s lead by adopting open-records and open-meetings laws, have gone a step further. They have established separate commissions that deal administratively with alleged violations of their sunshine laws.
In Texas, the state attorney general’s office deals with such appeals and issues binding decisions. Connecticut and New Jersey have state commissions that examine complaints and take enforcement action. In these and other places, citizens can expect a process that costs less than hiring a lawyer and paying filing fees and other legal expenses. That and they can get faster answers.

That, at least, is one of the perceptions of people who have talked about a similar structure in Washington. Those perceptions could be tested under a bill that will go before the 2009 legislative session when it convenes Jan. 12 in Olympia.

It’s a nondescript measure, setting up a 13-member state committee to conduct a study of such an agency for this state. The panel would take a look at what’s going on in other states and hear from stakeholders and other citizens here in Washington. By Nov. 15, it would be expected to make its recommendations to the Legislature, the governor, the state auditor and the attorney general.

It’s a modest and thoroughly reasonable proposal, and it has bipartisan backing in the Washington House of Representatives to go along with the support of Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna and Democratic Auditor Brian Sonntag.

Self-government requires open government. Meetings and records that are part of the public process must be accessible to the public. That is fundamental to the political accountability that gives government its legitimacy.

Traditionally, members of the public have seen that truth more clearly than those under scrutiny. Public officials who withhold legitimate information create a troubling situation for citizens whose personal resources are no match for the public resources at the disposal of recalcitrant agencies.

Launching an earnest inquiry into other states’ experience is a plausible step, and it could lead to a more citizen-friendly process in Washington. That’s an outcome every Washingtonian should want.