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Don’t raid public records fines

Post by Kim Bradford on Jan. 26, 2010 at 6:54 pm |
January 26, 2010 5:58 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

Lawmakers, under cover of helping the state archives, are seeking to shift the costs of illegal government secrecy to whistleblowers.

Identical bills in the House and Senate propose to redirect fines now paid to private citizens who prove public agencies erred in withholding records. The fines would go instead to the state archives account.

Requesters could plead with the court to reimburse their attorney fees and costs. But judges would not be bound to award those expenses as they are now.

The bills are certainly not the only pieces of legislation aimed at appeasing local governments’ clamor for relief from the burden of doing the public’s business in public.

But what Rep. Dennis Flannigan of Tacoma and Darlene Fairley of Lake Forest Park have dreamed up in House Bill 2910 and Senate Bill 6408 is especially egregious. Their legislation would eliminate much of the incentive agencies have to comply with the state’s open records law.

Gone would be the threat of having to pay a large fine to an average Joe who was denied the requested records. A payment to the state archives – provided the state even insisted on collecting – is more charitable than punitive.

A few headline-grabbing penalties go a long way toward convincing public agencies that it’s cheaper and less embarrassing in the long run to just comply with the law.

When a Pierce County judge concluded that the Tacoma City Council had likely violated the open meetings law and took the extraordinary step of requiring the council to record its executive session, councils in University Place and Puyallup took notice. The result was a far more open process to fill council vacancies in three South Sound cities.

The News Tribune pressed the Tacoma case knowing that if the newspaper prevailed, the city would have to pay the costs of litigation. That’s an important assurance, especially for ordinary citizens who don’t have the resources to hire a lawyer when an agency denies them access.

But forget being able to afford an attorney. Under Flannigan’s and Fairley’s bills, a requester would be hard-pressed to even find an attorney willing to take his case. Lawyers tend to balk at the possibility of not getting paid.

Underwriting the state archives with public records fines is an insult to the very rationale for preserving government documents.

But these bills aren’t really about finding an alternative funding source for the archives. They are about eliminating what little recourse citizens have to ensure public agencies comply with the law.

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