Editorials

A four-minute primer on open government

Maybe the wisest thing state lawmakers did this year was require that Washington officialdom learn some fundamentals about open government.

All elected policymakers and records officers must now get formal training on the state’s Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act within 90 days of taking office. They also have to take a refresher every four years.

Here’s a quick primer from an open-government point of view:

• If a member of the public asks for a public record, turn it over. The public owns it, not your agency. Really.



• If the document is potentially embarrassing, turn it over anyway. If you think it’s embarrassing now, just wait until a judge orders you to release it after you’ve tried to hide it from the public for six months.



• If the guy who wants it is a pest, turn it over anyway. The law doesn’t distinguish between pests and people you like.



• If the guy who asks is a 19-year-old high school dropout with tattoos on his nostrils, turn it over. Open government isn’t just for professional reporters who work for daily newspapers or television stations.



• If your agency’s lawyer says you don’t have to release a record, don’t assume the lawyer is right. Government attorneys frequently don’t understand public access, and they like to tell you what you want to hear. Make sure you’re hearing from an attorney who knows the law. Open records lawsuits can be expensive.



• When the law says you

can

withhold a document, it doesn’t always mean you

must

withhold the document. If release is permissible, release it. If it contains information that cannot be released, well, that’s why God invented Magic Markers.



• When asked, provide documents in digital formats, not hard copies. Don't print out a bale of paper so your office can charge an outrageous fee per page.



• If you’re tempted to use your personal cell phone for official business you don’t want the public to know about, you’re halfway to the dark side.



• If you believe that frank debates on big decisions should only occur in secret executive sessions, you belong in a corporate boardroom, not public office.



• If you spend time contemplating ways to get around the Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act, you’re not a public servant. Please find a different line of work.



• Every so often, read the preamble to the Public Records Act:



“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. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected.

“In the event of conflict between the provisions of this chapter and any other act, the provisions of this chapter shall govern.”

Class dismissed.

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