Legislation would reduce risk of costly lawsuits
StoryIncreasing transparency and openness in government while reducing the possibility of costly lawsuits would result from legislation introduced today by Metropolitan King County Councilmembers Bob Ferguson and Reagan Dunn to reform the County’s public records disclosure process.
In the last several months, King County has been involved in two high-profile public records cases, potentially resulting in more than $1 million in costs that may be imposed by the courts. In January, the Washington Supreme Court held that the trial court had not imposed steep enough penalties against King County for failing to provide documents concerning the public financing of what is now Qwest Field. The maximum penalty if applied would be more than $800,000. The County is appealing the case. More recently, King County settled another case for $225,000 over a request regarding the 2004 governor’s election.
“The state Supreme Court’s ruling is a wake-up call. We need to reform our system of responding to public records requests,” said Council Vice Chair Bob Ferguson. “It’s the right thing to do for government transparency. Besides, we can’t afford to do otherwise. A dollar spent on unneeded fines is a dollar we do not have to spend on sheriff’s deputies and public health clinics.”
“King County has an abysmal record of complying with public records requests. We have paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in court costs and fines. This is an area that’s ripe for reform,” said Councilmember Dunn. “I am pleased to join Councilmember Ferguson in making sure that King County provides timely information to the public in a transparent way. I am also very thankful for Attorney General Rob McKenna’s leadership at the state level in proposing model rules for us to follow. Under this proposal citizens of King County will have more assurance of access to important information about what their government is up to.”
King County is required under the state Public Records Act to provide citizens with access to public records upon request. The law defines a public record as “any state or local record relating to the performance and conduct of government.” Public records may be in the form of a written record, report, handwritten note or memo, e-mail, picture, disk, maps, or other medium.
The proposed legislation reflects the work of a joint Council and Executive branch staff work group and is based on the state Attorney General’s suggested model rules for public records response and retention. Ferguson and Dunn credit the work of the committee for providing a solid starting point for this legislation, which would:
• Set a standardized county-wide procedure for the handling of public records requests,
• Establish guidelines for the proper retention of records and archives, and
• Denote timelines for responding to requests.
Some aspects of the legislation do not precisely align with the Attorney General’s model rules. For example, the Attorney General’s suggested process would treat a county as a single agency, so that if a request for a document is made to one agency within the county, all agencies in the county would need to examine their records for that document. Given the size and complexity of King County government and its separately elected officials under the county charter, the work group recommended that each agency headed by a separately-elected official is responsible only for responding to requests for documents that are within its control.
Ferguson and Dunn have expressed concerns with the proposed deviations from the model rules and look forward to discussing these and other issues with experts and staff in the coming weeks through a series of briefings in the Council’s Committee of the Whole, which is chaired by Ferguson. Additionally, Ferguson and Dunn are interested in adding elements to the legislation that would improve training and establish a countywide reporting system to track and monitor public records requests.
“This legislation is a great start for achieving our goal of making King County a model jurisdiction for public records,” said Ferguson. “These are the people’s records. We must steward them properly and ensure citizens have easy and transparent access.”