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EDITORIALS Keeping access to public records

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Posted: Friday, March 1, 2013 9:00 am

Americans have many freedoms that are the envy of other countries, including freedom of speech, religion, the press, equal justice and the right to bear arms.

Another right Americans have is access to public records generated by state, county and federal government agencies. Requesting and receiving public records help keeps people informed and provides checks and balances for the government.

It is why we wanted to make you aware of the following three pieces of proposed legislation being considered by state legislators.

They are House bills 1128 (allowing court injunctions again public records requests for certain reasons), 1037 (establishing a method to recover costs for public records requested for commercial reasons) and 1651 (keeping some juvenile offender records confidential, except in sex offence and extremely violent cases).

Although House bills 1128 and 1037 allow exemptions for the media, the proposals hamper and restrict access to public records for the general public.

Requesters can have court injunctions filed against them if their requests are considered too broad or harassing and authorizes agencies to adopt a policy limiting the time they spend working on requests.

"Officials likely perceive many typical record requests as harassing, because some requests seek to uncover officials' illegal or inappropriate behavior or actions," according to testimony opposing the bill. "These requests should not be restricted. The public has a right to know about these activities."

Public testimony acknowledges there are examples of former public employees and officials using the Public Records Act to harass former employers. Restrictions may be needed for ex-employees, but not for private citizens as a whole.

The opposing testimony also agrees there is a difference between the general public and incarcerated criminals.

"It was OK to allow injunctions against incarcerated criminals, because they have limited rights while in prison," according to public testimony. "Free citizens have stronger rights to disclosure and information."

House Bill 1037 attempts to fight out-of-state "data miners."

While the bill has an admirable goal, it is an example of punishing all requestors with an added cost-recovery fee.

The bill, if passed, would add extra costs for title companies, which maintain databases updated with information received from the courthouse. But the information requested by the title companies isn't used for solicitation.

House Bill 1651, concerning closing juvenile records to the public, aims to restrict access to all juvenile criminal records except first and second degree murder, first-degree manslaughter, first-degree assault, homicide by abuse, first-degree rape and first-degree child assault.

Proponents of the bill testified that court records prevent a child from moving past their crime and into a successful adulthood.

Bill opponents testified about the "broad public interest in seeing that justice is administered fairly and equally."

Opponents said journalists are not seeking names, rather they are checking to see if juveniles are being treated different because of their race or family's social status in the community.

We are against laws that restrict residents' and journalists' access to public records. It is our hope that current laws can be used to stop any abuses.

- Editorial Board

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1 comment:

  • Hiding Public Documents posted at 3:55 pm on Fri, Mar 1, 2013.

    Hiding Public Documents Posts: 1

    You missed one bad bill HB1185 which adds a charge for requesting public documents. Public records belong to the public already and the responsibilities of each government agency already require the agency to manage and make public records available.

    Not only would a charge for public records mean that folks pay for the same service twice, there is a problem for those who cannot afford to pay for the records. Why should public records be available only to those who have the where-with-all to pay to have access to records they already own?

    Charging for records is just one more barrier being used to discourage the public from overseeing their government staff and elected officials.

    All are bad bills.

    Write (emails) or call and leave messages for ALL the members of Washington State House of Representatives. These bills are out of committee and now on their way for a vote by the entire house!!! ACT FAST!!!