OPINION EDITORIAL by Rep. Terry Nealey: Bringing the Public Records Act into the modern world

When the Public Records Act became law in 1972, Washingtonians wanted openness and transparency at all levels of state and local government. They also wanted to ensure citizens “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.”
Transparency is the foundation of good government that is of, by and for the people. It should be preserved, protected and defended. Unfortunately, progressive events over the years have systematically eroded access to timely public records at great expense to taxpayers.
When the law was created, it allowed governments to charge 15 cents per photocopy page of paper records to help recover costs. However, 45 years ago, electronic records didn’t exist. We’ve had an evolution of technological advances since the PRA was first enacted, but the law hasn’t kept up with current times and technology.

As a result, there has been an explosion of electronic public records requests for free, including from “vexatious requestors” — people who have little or no legitimate interest in the records themselves, other than to force agencies to spend precious time and limited resources trying to fulfill the requests. These abusers know that if they do not receive a timely response, the responding agency could be liable for lawsuits and even damages paid to the requestors. That’s taxpayer’s money! Worse, these requests gum up the system, making it harder for governments to timely respond to legitimate requests — effectively shutting the rest of us out.

A recent Washington State Auditor’s study revealed state and local governments spent more than $60 million in one year to fulfill 285,000 requests and more than $10 million from litigation fees. Between 2011 to 2015, requests increased by 36 percent. Only one percent of the costs were recovered by the original law’s fee structure, leaving governments (taxpayers) to foot the bill.

Last year, Rep. Joan McBride, D-Kirkland, and I worked with a broad spectrum of  citizens, including representatives of the news media who in the past had vehemently opposed PRA reforms, to find solutions that could reduce abuses while preserving open government. From those meetings, we have introduced bipartisan legislation to help bring the PRA into the modern era.

Under House Bill 1595, a public records request must be for an identifiable record. Nonspecific requests for all or most agency records would not be considered valid. Agencies could deny multiple automated computer “bot” requests within a 24-hour period from the same source if it causes excessive interference with its essential functions. The bill also gives agencies the authority to charge a nominal fee for electronic records for cost recovery, similar to the original law that allowed charges for paper documents. We believe these provisions would reduce the amount of frivolous requests.

A second measure, House Bill 1594, would create a grant program to help local governments, particularly smaller agencies, pay for training to better manage records. It would also allow the Attorney General’s office to assist local governments in complying with requests, provide a procedure to get requestors to clarify their requests, and create a study to explore the creation of a statewide online portal for public records access.

If we can decrease excessive, abusive requests, it will increase access for citizens who want and deserve transparency from their governments. Plus, it will decrease costs and litigation, all of which is eventually paid by taxpayers, and ensure better service to the public. We believe this is a reasonable approach toward fixing an outdated system.

Editor’s note: A lifelong resident of Eastern Washington, Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, represents the 16th Legislative District.

For more information about Rep. Nealey, visit: www.representativeterrynealey.com.

State Representative Terry Nealey, 16th Legislative District
404 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
(360) 786-7828 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000