Washington State is a national leader in terms of transparency and open government. Citizens can more easily access public records here than in almost any state, providing strong accountability and certainly cutting down on fraud and waste.
Representative Takko has filed a bill, however, that would hobble transparency and give local governments an opportunity to pick and choose the documents they want to release. Presented as a measure to help save costs, the bill would allow governments to set a ceiling on the amount of staff time they would spend fulfilling public records requests, down to five hours per month in some cases. And it gives the government entity great deference in deciding which requests have priority, with a bias against repeat requestors.
If government gets to decide the priority of requests, you can bet that embarrassing documents are going to drop to the bottom of the list.
Ironically, the bill attempts to balance cost with access by requiring local governments to post all their basic documents (agendas, budgets, salaries) online. The dirty secret? This is already allowed, and could go a long way to reducing costs without any restrictions being placed on access. Rather than reducing transparency, local governments should use the tools already available to them to reduce costs.
There's going to be a public hearing on this bill next week. I encourage you to attend and show your support for openness and transparency in government.
Local Government* - Friday, 1/25/2013 at 1:30 p.m.
House Full Committee
House Hearing Rm D
John L. O'Brien Building
REVISED ON 1/18/2013 AT 9:51 AM
Possible Executive Session: Bills previously heard in committee.
Public Hearing: HB 1128 - Regarding local agencies' responses to public records requests.
Several other bills that would have a major effect on the transparency of government have recently been filed. One that would have a negative effect is HB 1037, sponsored by Rep. Moeller. Its aim is to allow agencies to charge more for providing documents for commercial purposes, which sounds reasonable. The problem is that it's a very broad and ill-defined bill which could easily give agencies too much wiggle room to deem a request "commercial" in order to charge more for it.
HB 1037 will be heard on January 23rd at 1:30 pm in the House Government and Operations Committee.
A bill that would expand transparency, on the other hand, is HB 1197, sponsored by Rep. Pollet. This bill would effectively give citizens a right to comment on government decisions. Currently there is no requirement for agencies to allow public comment before passing new rules or ordinances (although many do it anyway). This would require it in all such instances.
I've heard of many instances of ordinances being passed without opportunity for public comment, so this bill would be very helpful in ensuring citizens have a voice. So far it has not been scheduled for a public hearing.