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Published on Friday, April 18, 2014

2014 Legislature adopts bills promoting open government and transparency

The 2014 session was surprisingly significant for open government legislation, and two notable bills designed to increase transparency and understanding of open government laws passed. The Legislature also considered a flurry of public record exemptions bills, and a handful passed. Unfortunately, the Legislature did not take any action to reduce the impact of burdensome and abusive requests or address costs generated by for-profit requestors.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s request legislation, ESB 5964, establishes open government training requirements for governing bodies, elected officials, and public records officers beginning July 1, 2014. Check out this article for an overview of the requirements. Cities supported this new requirement as a way to help ensure that all city officials are familiar with public records and open meetings laws. The new law has been touted by open government advocates as an important measure for protecting transparency, but they have also been critical of the Legislature for not extending the requirements to state legislators. The training requirement is not meant to be onerous and provides a great deal of flexibility in how officials can comply. The Attorney General has issued a Frequently Asked Questions publication to help answer some questions about the training requirement.

The Legislature also passed HB 2105, which requires cities to post agendas of regular city council meetings on the web. AWC worked with the sponsor and others to make this bill practical for cities. Only cities with a website and at least 10 employees must post the agendas of regular city council meetings on its website 24 hours in advance of the meeting. Agendas may be amended after posted and failure to post an agenda does not invalidate an otherwise legal action nor provide a basis for awarding attorney fees or seeking a mandamus or injunction under the Open Public Meetings Act. The requirement will take effect on June 12, 2014.

The Legislature also considered a number of public record exemption bills, and exemptions were added for public utility customer information (SB 6007), juvenile arrest and court records (ESHB 1651), public employee drivers’ license numbers (HB 2376), and information about archeological and cultural resources (HB 2724). Cities do not always support legislation requesting exemptions because of the additional impacts they can create for public records disclosure; however, AWC did actively support some of these bills as important measures for protecting privacy and vulnerable populations.

The Legislature failed to take action on any legislation that would have addressed the undue burden created by some abusive requestors and requests made by for-profit businesses. Last year the Legislature provided funding for the Ruckelshaus Center to conduct a preliminary assessment of the issues around abusive and harassing requests. This year, cities and other local government associations asked for continued funding to bring stakeholders together to find agreement on a solution. While the House included some funding in their preliminary budget, the final supplemental budget did not. AWC will continue to work with stakeholders this interim to see if the process can still move forward.

Additionally, the Legislature again failed to pass HB 1037, which would allow cost recovery for for-profit commercial requests. Cities and other local governments report time consuming requests from commercial requestors who make a profit selling information that they got at no cost. Cities have pushed to stop subsidizing these businesses by establishing the ability to charge for such requests. However, the bill continues to run into opposition by certain open government advocates and concerns about transparency and free access to public records.

2014 demonstrated the difficulty local governments face in passing any significant changes to the public records act that will address abusive requests. Local governments share the Legislature’s commitment to open government and transparency and agree that access to public records is fundamental to that goal. However, the Legislature seems to fear that any changes designed to mitigate abusive requests on local governments will be used to paint legislators as opponents to open government. Additionally, open government advocates continue to claim that there is insufficient data about local governments’ actual costs for records requests and conclude that there is not really a problem with abusive requests. These sentiments will continue to impede our effort to make meaningful changes to stop abusive requests.

BillTracker AWC priority Bill # Descriptive title Final status
    HB 1651 Access to juvenile records Law; Effective 6/12/2014
Yes Endorse SHB 2105 Requiring web posting of regular meeting agendas Law; Effective 6/12/2014
    HB 2296 Duplicate signatures on local initiatives Law; Effective 6/12/2014
    SHB 2724 Exempting information concerning archaeological resources and traditional cultural places Law; Effective 6/12/2014
Yes Endorse ESB 5964 Mandatory open government training Law; Effective 7/1/2014
    SSB 6007 Exempting customer information held by public utilities Law; Effective 6/12/2014
    ESSB 6265 Cities with patient health care information Law; Effective 6/12/2014
    ESSB 6517 Exempting employee driver's license and ID numbers Law; Effective 6/12/2014
    E3SHB 1005 Mandatory electronic PDC filing Failed
Yes Other significant issue HB 1037 Cost recovery for commercial requests Failed
    SHB 1298 Sunshine Committee recommendations Failed
Yes Monitor SHB 1413 Washington Voting Rights Act Failed
    HB 2114 Exempting customer information held by public utilities Failed; See SB 6007
Yes Endorse SHB 2121 Mandatory open government training Failed; See SB 5964
    HB 2202 Open data portal Failed
    ESHB 2376 Exempting employee driver's license and ID numbers Failed; See SB 6517
    HB 2578 Exempting certain public works proposals and documents from public disclosure  Failed
    SB 5169 Sunshine Committee recommendations Failed
    SB 6059 Charging for document scanning  Failed
    SB 6217 Exempting global positioning system data that shows the residence of a criminal justice agency employee Failed
    SB 6454 Exempting certain public works proposals and documents from public disclosure  Failed
    SB 6480 Exempting information concerning archaeological resources and traditional cultural places  Failed; See HB 2724