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Originally published Monday, February 9, 2009 at 5:12 PM

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Use technology to provide public records cheaply

A trio of bills before the Washington state Legislature would boost costs of copying public records, effectively discouraging citizen requests for documents they are entitled to. Sponsored by Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Shoreline, these bills should be dropped. A better idea is requiring municipal agencies to use technology to provide the documents more quickly and cheaply.

Seattle Times editorial

MUNICIPAL governments are so emboldened by court victories that help keep their secrets, they are getting even more creative about ways to discourage the public from getting documents to which they are entitled.

The common objective of a trio of bills introduced by Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Shoreline, is to boost the costs of getting copies of public documents — a move sure to discourage people with the right to keep tabs on their government.

This effort in blue Washington is especially ironic considering one of President Obama's first acts as president was to direct his agencies to open government records under the Freedom of Information Act — and to use technology to make documents more accessible, more quickly and cheaply.

These measures are particularly galling during a recession and a disturbing decrease in the corps of journalists who traditionally play watchdog over government.

Senate Bill 5249 would permit agencies to deny records requests to people who have an outstanding balance for copies stemming from previous requests; SB 5251 would permit agencies to charge the requester for all documents made in public records — even if they are not what was requested.

The worst of the bad bunch is SB 5250, which would increase the maximum per-page copying charge from 15 to 25 cents. That adds up — a 100-page document would cost $25. A friendly representative of a local Kinkos said Friday such a document would cost only $9 if brought to her shop.

Hardly seems right that public agencies would be making such a profit off documents to which citizens are entitled. Though municipal lobbyists suggest the higher fee would offset costs of staff time in fulfilling the request, that is expressly prohibited by the state's Open Records Act.

A better idea? Require cities, counties, ports and school districts to better manage their records. Why not make documents available by e-mail or copying them on to a disc — pennies a serving — even less if the requester provides the disc.

If local governments were really trying to serve their constituents, they would be searching for innovative ways to fill their requests — not ways to discourage them.

These bills should be dropped.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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