Happy Sunshine Sunday.
Sunshine Sunday was first declared in 2002 by a group of newspaper editors to promote open government.
As you know, we’re big fans of that concept, so we’re celebrating too.
Sean Robinson’s front-page story describes the challenges of keeping track of government business given all the new ways public officials can communicate. We understand the need to keep private business private, but we don’t need a new way for less scrupulous officials to hide conversations we should be able to see. We’ll follow this case as it winds through the courts.
Most public officials try to follow open government laws, but we also encounter agencies that balk at the time and money required to process public records requests. Last year, a number of agencies pushed for a state law limiting the number of hours they had to spend answering those requests. They wanted to be able to get a court injunction against filling requests they deemed overly burdensome. Some who testified in favor of the law said jurisdictions spend hundreds of thousands of dollars filling requests, according to the legislative staff report. Representatives from Pierce County and the Bethel School District testified in favor.
Thankfully, the bill didn’t pass.
After last year’s session, the Washington Coalition for Open Government filed a records request of its own. It asked eight state agencies and 96 local governments, including some who testified in favor of House Bill 1128, for an analysis of the total amount they spent filling records requests. Among them were Pierce County, Tacoma, University Place, the Port of Tacoma and Bethel School District.
Nine counties, eight cities and one port never responded, a violation of state law. Of the others, none had figured a total cost.
All five Pierce County agencies responded.
“One (University Place) had no responsive records,” said Toby Nixon, coalition president, “and the others produced detailed records of some of their costs of responding to records requests but by no means all of the costs. 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.”
Of course, filling records requests takes precious money and time. And yes, some people file unreasonably large or frivolous requests.
But agencies have a number of ways to cut costs. They can respond in installments and cancel if a requester doesn’t claim the first installment. They can require a monetary deposit and cancel if it isn’t paid. They can ask people to narrow their requests. Best of all, they can post more documents online so people can search for records themselves.
Running a democracy is sometimes burdensome, but we all get to see how our governments operate. Alongside the federal protections, the right is enshrined in our state public records laws that begin:
“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”
We’d like to keep the sunshine coming.
We have a special treat planned this week for TNT subscribers.
On Thursday morning, you’ll find a special section called Northwest Getaways tucked inside your paper. It’s packed with information about a dozen weekend trip destinations within driving distance of Pierce County.
Astoria, Hood River and Portland to the south. Victoria, Orcas Island, Treehouse Point and Skagit Valley to the north. Chelan and Walla Walla to the east. Lake Quinault, Cape Disappointment and Sol Duc Hot Springs to the west.
The section is a spin-off of our “Explore” series of day trip stories that runs occasionally in the Friday GO section.
We’ve beefed up some of those articles. And our six features writers and editors each got to spend $250 on a new overnight trip they could write about. (Sometimes, it’s good to be on the features team.)
Northwest Getaways won’t appear in TNT newsstand copies. It’s one more specialty publication we’ve reserved for subscribers only.
Let us know how you like it, and send future destination ideas to features editor Dusti Demarest at firstname.lastname@example.org.