Will Seattle close the door on open government?
With fewer newspaper watchdogs, the last thing we need is law that limits access to government doings.
President Barack Obama was elected promising more transparency in government; fewer secrets and backroom deals. Locally though, it looks like the blinds are being drawn. While newspapers that report on government are closing down and watchdogs disappearing, the government itself is proposing changes that would make it harder to get at public information.
Some Northwest leaders, unlike Obama, appear to be regressing in the area of open government. The Washington State Legislature is considering legislation so broad that, in defiance of Washington’s Public Disclosure Act, it would ask those who request information to prove why they need it, and what they will do with it. While the legislation is proposed to solve a serious problem, it would provide the excuse to tell the public that our government is none of our business.
It isn't just a state-level issue. The Seattle City Council has created the Open Government Committee, which sounds like an exercise in transparency, but is not. It has, in fact, proposed changes that would hamper access to public information.
Interesting in itself, the city's legislation was created in secret with no draft available for public review before release. While the announcements of the new committee gave the impression they were to enhance transparency their first proposed legislation (Council Bill 116476) does just the opposite. Paraphrased it says, if it takes us too much time to find the information, we don’t have to supply it.
Finding information quickly requires an index and Seattle’s bill takes advantage of a small provision in Washington’s landmark public-disclosure law. The law, RCW 42.56.070, provides that if maintaining such an index is unduly burdensome or would interfere with city operations, a city is not required to maintain one.
The Council committee is hearing from some city staffers that the work of providing information to the public is just too much trouble, and it takes too much time to keep an index. These things keep them from, they say, doing more important work. Regardless of the accuracy of that claim, it's important to remember that the exemption to the Public Disclosure Act was intended to address some unusual and infrequent cases where cities failed to keep records in such a way that information from them could be recovered easily.
To address that very problem, Washington’s State Archivist Jerry Handfield travels the state with a watchdog group called the Washington Coalition of Open Government (WCOG) to teach cities how to comply with Washington’s disclosure law. (WCOG's members are judges, media types and government officials, along with ordinary citizens.) Handfield teaches the reasonable theory that government can much more easily and inexpensively respond to public information requests by making certain a good index of the information exists.
Council Bill 116476 includes language that does the opposite of what the state archivist suggests. It says the city is "not required to maintain a current index of public records due to findings of the City Council that the requirement is unduly burdensome and would interfere with City operations and such a list is nearly impossible to create and/or maintain."
Now, it has to be asked: What does it take to create an index? In some city departments, they already exist. In the Council’s own legislative department, former employee Ernie Dornfeld and staff created a searchable index for all of the city's legislation past and present. Any legislation can be searched by any citizen, any time, online. While not all city departments have stepped up to the obvious need to create such an online resource, they clearly could start now keeping indexes of all new records. Except that this bill would prevent even that.
The traditional advocates of public access — newspapers — are losing their ability to fight this battle, which takes time, money and column inches. These changes also put a greater burden on the remaining providers of news which have fewer resources, such as smaller media outlets, blogs and citizen-supported publications.
Seattle’s proposed legislation is nothing more than an excuse to deny a legitimate request because it's too much work to reveal the truth.