Monday, February 21, 2011
ALERT! PUBLIC RECORDS ACT BEING DISMANTLED NOW - YOUR ACTION NEEDED
Below is a message from well-respected land use attorney, Peter Eglick, about efforts to substantially diminish citizen access to public records. If you would like to read the bill and bill report on HB 1300, go to http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=1300&year=2011This bill is ready for a vote in committee. The companion bill in the senate is SB 5088 and info about that bill can be found at http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=5088&year=2011.Both have already had public hearings. You all likely know how difficult it is to pry public records from departments and agencies. These bills will create further obstacles. Please read the Times article (link is below) and take action to oppose these bills TODAY.
Please see the link above to today's Seattle Times story about attempts in the current Legislature to cut back on citizen rights under the Public Records Act. These attempts are in my opinion misguided because public records requests under the Act are often the only way to track government actions on matters of concern.
In particular, the current attempt in the Legislature to make citizens pay government staff salaries to obtain information that should be public in the first place would effectively eliminate the right to information except for those who are well-funded enough to not blink at such expense (mostly corporations and other wealthy entities). This would create a two-tier system of information haves and have-nots. It would become even more difficult for “ordinary” citizens to have access to information about what government is up to. Providing public records is a core government function, part of the cost of doing business for government. It is paid for by the taxes the government already collects. What government function is more important than allowing citizens access to the information necessary to exercising their rights as citizens in a democracy?
The justification for the approach now being pushed in the Legislature by some interest groups– that there are abuses in PRA requests – is largely undocumented and, when the evidence is examined, largely untrue (as the Times article describes).
The Times article also mentions proposals in the Legislature to burden citizen lawsuits to enforce the Public Records Act with additional procedural hoops. These proposals are also ill-advised. The fact is that there are, relatively speaking, very few of such enforcement lawsuits. They generally come about only in egregious cases. The credible possibility of an enforcement action is for some (not all) agencies the only incentive for compliance. And it is the only recourse for citizens when faced with an agency intent on noncompliance. Setting up procedural hoops to delay a citizens’ right to ask a Court to order release of records will only encourage a violating agency to slow the game so that it can continue to hide the ball. “Justice delayed is justice denied” is not just a cliché: it is a fact.
There is no denying that there are some government interests which – even in this day and age when records can be readily kept and accessed electronically -- still find it irksome that they cannot do business “off-the-record.” However, as Louis Brandeis, later a revered U.S. Supreme Court Justice, wrote in 1913, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” The importance and curative power of sunlight in government has not diminished in the last century.
If you share my concern, please contact your state Senators and Representatives (even if just by e mail) and let them know that you oppose the changes proposed to the Public Records Act that would burden and diminish citizens’ access to public records.