Op-Ed: Mayors say it’s time to strengthen the Public Records Act

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Cities need tools to appropriately handle complex and broad requests 

By David Baker, Mayor, City of Kenmore and Jeff Johnson, Mayor, City of Lake Forest Park

Our cities, and cities throughout the state, are committed to open and transparent government. We dedicate significant time and resources to uphold these principles.

Both the cities of Kenmore and Lake Forest Park receive about 250 requests each year. Responding to the public’s inquiries is what we do – it’s just one of the many services we provide. We also build and maintain streets, respond to victims of crime, prepare for emergencies, plan for growth, and provide safe parks.

The Public Records Act is an important law that protects citizens’ right to know about government activities and decisions. It provides strong protections for public access to records and penalties for agencies and officials who fail to comply.

However, the Public Records Act isn’t as strong as it could be.

The law was adopted in 1972 by Washington state voters. Today, our world is vastly different, and the law has failed to keep up with new realities and changing technologies. In order to be accountable to our community members, we need tools to appropriately handle complex and broad requests from a minority of requestors who monopolize public resources.

The Public Records Act, as currently written, lacks provisions to protect the public from those who use the law for financially-motivated, punitive, and retributive requests. These requestors exploit the act for their own purposes, creating a costly burden for local governments and taxpayers alike.

The growth in requests that monopolize city resources cannot be overlooked. In the City of Kenmore, the number of complicated requests grew from eight percent in 2014 to 15 percent in 2015. Examples of these requests include those that were either broad or vague, part of a series of requests made by a frequent requestor, not easily identifiable, or required legal review.

These large, complex requests take staff time and resources from other government responsibilities, and result in longer response periods for other requestors.

The Legislature is currently considering HB 2576, sponsored by Rep. Joan McBride (D-Kirkland) and Rep. Terry Nealey (R-Dayton). This bill is a modest proposal to provide some alternatives for local government and requestors.

Some open government advocates admit that a problem exists with certain types of requests and requestors, but remain opposed to this bill. Now is the time for us to work together and support legislation that strengthens this law in response to those who monopolize limited public resources for personal gain.


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