Public Records Act Under Attack by City and County Governments

Public Testimony in Opposition to House Bills 1594 and 1595
Good afternoon.
My name is Arthur West. I live in Olympia.
I have been coming to the legislature for over a decade testifying against bills almost exactly like HB 1594 and 1595. It seems every year “public servants” like the AWC, WSAC and the WPPA muster their “minions of darkness” to propose legislation like HB 1594 and 1595. Their goal is always the same, to undercut the Public Records Act by small incremental steps,  and every year we have to sit through a parade of horror stories about how terrible it is that citizens can actually hold their government accountable.  Although this year we have a study group smokescreen, every year, including this one, it is the taxpayer funded lobbying entities of the shadow government that are the dark forces behind these assaults. (see Telford, Casting Sunlight on Shadow Government, Leslie Marshal, 24 Seattle U. L. Rev. 139 (2000)
It is understandable that the unholy trinity of the AWC, WSAC, WPPA and their minions of darkness might dislike the PRA like vampires abhor sunlight, since the concept of citizen control over government that underlies the PRA is contrary to the intent of these groups to disenfranchise the ordinary citizen, and the PRA’s continued existence is an obstacle to their totalitarian political agenda.  Through the years a number of factors typically characterize shadow government legislation, and while  carefully designed to appear innocuous their faces, HB 1594 and 1595 exhibit these typical hallmarks.

1. The bill is advanced behind a smokescreen of self-serving subjective horror stories.
One recurring theme in the PR that accompanies shadow government legislation is the demonization of citizens who seek public records and the attempt to create a climate of hysteria to in order to justify allowing government to evade the reasonable requirements of the PRA. Outraged and exaggerated testimony by local agencies that they are the blameless victims of evil and abusive citizens seeking records via requests they cannot answer is one telltale red flag that the forces of darkness are behind the legislation. In reality, the act as it now exists allows agencies to act reasonably to answer requests in installments without interfering with their other duties.

2. The sponsors do not communicate with or address concerns of actual stakeholders.
A second hallmark of shadow government legislation is the total refusal of the sponsors to communicate in good faith with WASHCOG, Allied Daily Newspapers, or the requestor community. As an example, I have been testifying against every heinous bill these people propose consistently for over 5 years and have never once been contacted by any of these shadow government entities prior to the relaunch of their annual assaults on the public’s right to know.

3. A few examples of “burdensome” requests are advanced to attempt to prove that PRA must be changed. Another point of continuity is the manipulation of a few overly broad requests into a state of public emergency. While this may appear slightly different due to the packaging these are the same concerns that have been advanced for a decade by the forces of darkness. In reality, agencies have broad authority to produce records in installments, and the act only allows penalties when an agency acts unreasonably. What the sponsors attempt to obscure is the fact that the intent of these bills is to shield unreasonable withholding of records from any possibility of redress.

4. The stated intent is to improve the act but the changes are stealthily designed to undercut and render the act ineffectual by small incremental steps. Inevitably, the proponents disclaim any intent to weaken or eviscerate the act, and their stated intent is to improve it and lessen the burden on local government. However, another point of congruency on all of the shadow government legislation is that it is sneakilly designed to set us upon the path to rendering the Public Records Act ineffectual through a series of small subversive amendments, like replacing the requirement that an agency respond with a requirement that the agency declare the request unclear and seek “Arbitration” for such “unclear” request. Such a practice might sound workable in theory but would be unworkable in the real world because all requests would be seen as unclear and no agency would have to respond to even the most objectively clear request. Further, allowing agencies to impose unlimited charges based upon ill defined and subjective criteria would place the cost of seeking records beyond the ordinary citizen.

5. The real intent of the legislation is to doom the PRA to the death of a thousand cuts.
What the Cities and Counties, Ports, Fire Districts, and the well financed private publicly funded shadow government organizations that represent them before the legislature seek to accomplish in these bills is to initiate the first small steps in their decades old long term plan to render the PRA toothless and ineffective so that they can continue to unreasonably deny citizens access to essential records with impunity and retaliate against them for questioning the actions of their government free from any reasonable prospect of any substantial consequences for their actions.
The provisions this bill seeks to impose would be devastating on the ability of ordinary citizens to be informed in a timely manner of even such basic facts as what financial conflicts of interest their local officials might have, what  building projects their city was proposing in their neighborhood or whether the playground their children play in is contaminated by toxic or cancer causing chemicals.
This bill reflects the opinion of its shadow government authors that agencies are being unduly burdened by telling their citizens swhat they are doing, and that they are improperly penalized for inadvertent mistakes or omissions due to unclear requests. This is simply untrue. The only way a judge can assess a penalty under the Act is if they find that an agency acted unreasonably in withholding records. To say that allowing a court to determine the plain words of a request is unclear or that courts cannot be trusted to make the right decisions is a slap in the face to the impartiality and integrity of the hard working magistrates that make up our judicial branch. The option of mediation is always available if the parties agree, so this arbitration in this bill would add nothing to what exists and appears to be a pretext to allow the assertion of lack of clarity to justify unreasonable delay and obfuscation.

6. The enemies of the public’s right to know march in lockstep to promote their bills.     Finally, the most telltale indicator of a shadow government assault on the public’s right to know is the vast number and tone of the publicly funded officials and entities goose marching in lockstep to testify in support of restricting public access to records and justice. Ironically, while they crowd the hearing rooms to the point where ordinary citizens are excluded and make self serving claims of lack of resources, their very multitudes assembled on the public’s dime belie their transparent claims of lack of resources. Often the tone of a communication is more important than its contents and often the message implied by the tone of the shadow government’s minions of darkness is that citizens have no right to oversee the actions of the entities that serve them and that citizen access to records must be curtailed.
With all due respect to the unholy trinity of the Cities, Counties Ports, and the rest of the minions of darkness and quasi-private shadow government agencies that orchestrate these decades old annual assaults on the people’s right to know, their representations distort the basic reality that without the strong protections of our Public Records Act as it now exists the public would be subject to much higher costs in the form of rampant and unchecked government mismanagement and corruption.
Please do not support the shadow government’s latest incremental assault on the rights of the public by indulging them in their latest annual attempt to slowly, by small but determined steps, dismantle the law that, more than any other measure, protects the people’s right to know.