September 20, 2012 22:54 by Ryan
Also published in the Anacortes American on September 12, 2012:
A recent letter to the editor (“Public records ‘witch hunt’ cost city a bundle,” September 5) claims that requests for public records are excessively burdening the City of Anacortes and argues the Legislature should amend the Public Records Act so that requestors can be billed for research costs. In my view, the complaint is overstated, and the proposed solution is a bad one.
The right to access government records is an essential right of citizens of a democracy. The state Public Records Act is the result of a 1972 citizen initiative that famously declared, “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. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”
Under the state law, government is allowed to charge 15 cents per page for photocopies, but is not allowed to charge for staff time retrieving records. Allowing government to charge for records retrieval would dramatically curtail the public’s access to its government, and would eliminate the incentive government has to keep its records organized so it can quickly retrieve them.
The City’s calculations that some requests cost thousands of dollars to process appear to be based on a inflated staff pay rate of $65/hour. The mayor has gone so far as to publish a list of community members who have requested records, including these questionable cost calculations alongside their names in an obvious attempt to shame them out of submitting further requests.
Calling out members of the public for exercising their rights under state law to legitimate access to their records is a mistake. I don’t know where we get the idea that the City shouldn’t have to comply with state laws that happen to cost money to comply with. Lots of things cost the City money—like voter registration, redistricting, and indigent defense. We still have to pay for these things, and our community and government are better off because we do.
To the extent that records retrieval costs are an actual problem for the City of Anacortes, the solution is not restricting access to records, but instead affirmative disclosure and greater transparency. For example, a look back at the City’s most significant records requests for 2011 reveals that each of the most expansive requests were prompted by the Tethys contract, where the City has been less than forthcoming about what it’s doing and for what reasons. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once declared, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”