Is providing public records an undue burden or the cost of doing business?
Based on the results of a survey by the Washington Coalition for Open Government, it sounds like government officials don’t even know the answer.
Earlier this month I attended the annual Washington Coalition for Open Government conference. There, attorneys, city officials and journalists talked about open records and open meetings, and concerns we all share for keeping government accountable.
One narrative repeated every year in Olympia, said WCOG Chairman Toby Nixon, is how people can bring government to its knees by making “abusive” record requests. Nixon said these stories are often anecdotal. Nixon is also a former state legislator and current member of the Kirkland City Council.
An adage reporters often learn in J-school: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
So on a quest to find the real story, Nixon and others at WCOG filed records requests to seek evidence of the cost to comply with the Public Records Act. In late 2013, WCOG filed records requests of 96 local governments and eight state agencies for their examples of records abuse.
At the conference, Nixon said of the 104 agencies, eight did not respond to the request for records at all. The rest had either “no responsive records” or responded with unrelated information.
“Where is the proof” that agencies are being driven to bankruptcy by the state records act, Nixon said.
Already the state has more than 500 exemptions to the Public Records Act, said Sunshine Committee Chairman Michael Schwab, the keynote speaker for the event.
Records are a watchdog reporter’s bread and butter. Responses to records requests are often as diverse as the agencies I cover every day. The vast majority of the time I receive the records I seek without complaint or hassle.
The WCOG survey asked five agencies in Pierce County for their costs to provide records requests: Pierce County, Tacoma, University Place, the Port of Tacoma and Bethel School District.
“Based on what we received, I would have to say that these agencies, and their governing boards, really have no idea how much their agencies are spending on responding to public records requests. And that’s pretty consistent with what we’ve seen statewide,” Nixon told News Tribune Executive Editor Karen Peterson last week.
See more information about this series of requests in this WCOG report.
Posted in honor of Sunshine Week, a holiday created by journalists to celebrate open government.