There hasn’t been much consensus in Olympia recently on how to update our state’s Public Records Act for the tech age. Because of that, the default has been to do nothing.
On balance, that’s just fine. The law is tilted strongly in favor of the public’s right to know what public officials and employees are doing, how decisions are made, and how tax dollars are spent. In the absence of consensus, leaving the law alone has been the right choice.
But it’s clear that the law needs an update. Its authors could not have anticipated the vast technological leaps we’ve made or how technology would change how we store and distribute records. These changes have put new stresses and strains on the system, which was designed in the paper age.
First things first
The overwhelming priority, when considering updates to the law, is to preserve the law’s clear and unambiguous support for the public’s right to know what government is doing in its name. That key principle is why newspapers and open government advocates have been wary about records-related bills in the last few years.
Legislators have listened to that feedback. They’ve also heard from the records officers who actually fulfill public records requests, as well as leaders from cash-strapped cities and counties that struggle to handle large requests. A lot of time and thought has been put into the issue by lawmakers.
Some smart ideas
Primarily led by Rep. Terry Nealey (R-Dayton) and Rep. Joan McBride (D-Kirkland), legislators are now examining practical ways to make the Public Records Act work better.
- Defining “improper requests” – There are no limits in the law regarding how extensive public records requests can be. That has led some to request from agencies every record ever created over many decades. Obviously these are ridiculous, time-wasting requests. No one will read the records produced, yet you as the taxpayer are paying to have them compiled. Changes here make open government advocates nervous, and the devil will be in the details, but the status quo isn’t acceptable.
- Allowing fees for electronic records – Governments are allowed to charge per-page fees for records (a max of 15 cents a page). Because the law is silent on electronic records, the presumption has been that a per-page fee can’t be applied. The fees encourage requestors to narrow their requests and get to the heart of what they actually want to know. The per-page fee was never really about the cost of ink and paper; it was about helping recoup at least some of the staff costs. That should apply to electronic records too.
- Studying open records options – An even better path going forward is exploring open data, so more government records are available to the public without the need for costly and time-consuming records requests. McBride wants to hire a consultant to present options on web portals where citizens can view documents or make requests. The Open Data movement is slowly growing in the government world. A smart first step could be to determine the most commonly-requested documents, then proactively publish them online.
The default on the Public Records Act in recent years may have been inaction, but legislators have sharpened their thinking on these topics. It’s time to update the PRA for the 21st Century.