Does the Legislature really want to hear from citizens on changes to the landmark public records act voters adopted in 1972? Based on the treatment of SB 6576 (Allowing school districts to charge for the reasonable costs of responding to public records requests) one is left to wonder.

Not only was SB 6576 directly referred to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, bypassing policy committees when it was introduced on February 1, but so the called public hearing on the bill was dubious at best.

SB 6576 was added this past Saturday (2/4) at 5:29 p.m. to the agenda for the Senate Ways and Means Committee (along with 39 other bills) for a public hearing on Monday – yesterday (2/6). Not only did this require the waiving of Senate Rule 45 (requires 5 day public notice for bills heard at a public hearing) but those who managed to learn of the hearing were provided only 1 minute to testify on the proposed changes to the public records act allowing school districts to charge unknown amounts for access to public records. Only one person testified (Rowland Thompson) and it is clear that he was frustrated with the constraints put on his right to make the case for not adopting SB 6576.

Here is video of yesterday’s 3 minute long public hearing on SB 6576: (click here for video)

Had the required 5 day public notice been provided it is likely we would have seen more testimony against the bill reflecting this concern from the Seattle Times (in-part):

“On its face, the bill is deceptively reasonable. Finding records can take time, which costs money. Some people ask for many records. Why not make them pay?

The bill says they would be made to pay not more than ‘the actual classified personnel costs required to complete the search, review, redact, and copy of the records.’

The problem with this good-governmentalism is the way bureaucracies actually are. Many of the parents asking for records at a school district are trying to prove something against the school. It could be a search for reasons behind a decision prejudicial to a child. To allow the district to set a meter running creates an incentive to work slowly, to pad the bill, and to run up the cost so that the requester will go away.

Furthermore, the special treatment established by SB 6576 would not go unnoticed.

‘It is inevitable that if school districts were given this power, every other agency will ask for it,’ says Toby Nixon of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.”

The Everett Herald adds (in-part):

“A concerted effort that would make it easier for government agencies to keep information from the public is gaining traction in Olympia. If it succeeds, the concept that government exists to serve the people will be turned on its head . . .

Now comes SB 6576, scheduled for a hearing today in the Ways & Means Committee. It would require school districts to charge for personnel and other costs incurred responding to public records requests, even allowing the assessment of a 10 percent deposit.

It’s not hard to imagine how this could be used as a hammer to discourage public-record requests.

Current law doesn’t allow agencies to charge for the inspection of public records, for locating public documents, or for making them available for the requester to copy. (Agencies can and do charge for the cost of actually making copies.) It’s a long-recognized part of the cost of doing business as a public agency, in keeping with the central tenet of the Public Records Act: ‘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.’

These proposals represent a fundamental switch in who is in control of the public’s right to know. The public, which the government exists to serve, must retain that control. These bills are very bad public policy.”

As clearly evident from the lack of commitment to a real public hearing on SB 6576, additional legislative transparency protections for citizens remain needed so that the public can be put back into public hearings. Otherwise we should just end the charade and rename them “Lobbyist Hearings.”

Not to be out done, here are the agendas as of 9:20 this morning for today’s 1:30 p.m. Senate and House Ways and Means Committee hearings:

Ways & Means –  02/07/12  1:30 pm

Full Committee
Senate Hearing Rm 4
J.A. Cherberg Building
Olympia, WA

Public Hearing:  To be announced.

Executive Session:  To be announced.

Other business.

Ways & Means –  02/07/12  1:30 pm

Full Committee
House Hearing Rm A
John L. O’Brien Building
Olympia, WA

Public Hearing:  Bills referred to committee.

Additional Information


[Reprinted from the Washington Policy Center blog; photo credit: prettywar-stl]