Forecast for Washington Open Records Laws: Cloudy

It's not just our city that's enshrouded with fog. Legislators in Olympia have curtailed the laws guaranteeing the public access to government documents, commonly known as "sunshine laws," and might add a few more tweaks this year.

After legislators passed a bill during the last session giving governments the ability to deny felony inmates' requests, the Association of Washington Cities now wants to find ways to deal with non-felons who file obnoxiously broad and voluminous requests.

Fredric Cornell, a regular city council meeting attendee, inspired the current legislation. He submitted 501 requests with the city last year, over half the total received.

According to the Tacoma News Tribune, the city estimates it spent upwards of $16,000 in personnel time fulfilling those requests. Cornell paid for none of that.

At first glance, the changes proposed by the Association seem pretty innocuous. Lobbyist Victoria Lincoln explains that the first of her agency's two proposed bills would allow clerks and other records custodians to simply respond "check our Web site" for meeting minutes or ordinances that are regularly posted anyway. If the requestor doesn't have internet access, Lincoln says, agencies would have to make a computer available on site, but nothing more.

The second bill is more controversial. It would allow an agency to question the person asking for records in order to narrow down the request. Lincoln says figuring out exactly what the person is looking for makes responding to the request faster and cheaper.

Toby Nixon wants to keep government as open as possible, even for the really obnoxious.
Such questioning has long been opposed by advocates like the Washington Coalition for Open Government. Under state law, records are simply supposed to be available to the public. When the government can spend time looking into the person asking for them or asking their purpose in making the request, it's theoretically easier for the agency filling the request to block anything damaging.

Nixon sees the bill as an extension of the law passed last year allowing government officials to consider an inmate's intentions with a public records request. "There is this firm position under the public records act, that agencies cannot ask who you are or why you want the records, that has been breached," Nixon says by phone. "I know this is a slippery slope argument, which can be a fallacy, but this can result in public access being infringed because agencies would come back every year trying to expand that breach."

Lincoln says the proposed bills aren't about limiting access, just reining in costs associated with filling requests. Her footing for that position is pretty solid while local governments are trying to avoid cutting food services for the hungry or outreach to at-risk teens while resolving budget deficits.

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