Records law is about your right to know how officials use your money and authority

Open government isn’t an exciting topic, but it’s a vital one.

It comes down to this: Do you have the right to know how government officials spend their time, who they meet with, what information they base their decisions on, who they communicate with, and how they spend your money? Or does government get to decide what you know and what you don’t?

That’s really what’s at stake. Thankfully our state’s public records law, passed by the voters, makes it clear that the public’s right to know is the default.

For the public agencies that have to respond to records requests, the sticking point isn’t usually the access but the cost. A new report by the State Auditor’s Office attempts to quantify how much government at all levels spends on public records requests each year and how many requests are filed. The SAO found that state and local governments spend at least $60 million to fulfill 285,000 records requests.

Report fodder for cost complaints?
Shawn Vestal of the Spokesman-Review predicts the report will be fodder for governments that want the records law curtailed. He’s right, no doubt. Cities and counties have been lobbying Olympia for changes for several years now.

I do have sympathy for small cities and counties that can be overwhelmed by large records requests. Looking at the whole, though, there’s little cause for alarm. $60 million represents about 1/10 of 1% of total state and local government budgets in Washington. Even if the actual cost is higher, it’s a price we can afford to pay for open public access.

Vestal frames it the right way: Instead of looking only at cost, shouldn’t we also look at the value strong public access laws provide? If sovereignty ultimately rests with the people, and they are also the ones ultimately footing the bill as taxpayers, it’s tough to argue these costs are somehow out of line. There is not some popular sentiment that our records access should be limited.

The issue goes beyond cost, it’s true. The Wenatchee World writes that “some people in government think this whole public records thing is a pain in the patoot.” Spending time on public records requests is seen as an irritation, a distraction from other government work.

It’s a pain and it’s costly partly because, as Vestal notes, it’s so complicated. Our public records act started with a few limited exemptions; there are now over 400. That means much more time spent by government employees checking to see if anything in a batch of records is covered by one of the 400 exemptions. It also means more reviews by staff attorneys, adding to the cost.

Goal should be improving law without limiting access
Simplifying the law by cutting exemptions could be one way to reduce the costs for local governments.

A more radical solution, but one that might be more useful in the long term: Store many more government documents online, allowing the public to search for the information they want. Some cities already do this with, for instance, city councilmember emails. Agencies can start by posting the most commonly requested info; it will cut down on duplication of work and reduce time spent by staff on requests.

Too many in government, even if their cost concerns are valid, start with the assumption that the solution is to limit the public’s access. Perhaps the real solution is in making more government data publicly accessible and getting rid of some of the exemptions that keep the attorneys busy without actually benefitting the public.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.