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Originally published February 19, 2009 at 4:15 PM | Page modified February 20, 2009 at 9:12 AM

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Guest columnist

The Cost of open government (not free but worth it)

Government agencies in Washington state ought to be able to charge requesters of public documents the cost of making those copies, argues attorney Ramsey Ramerman. He says the Times editorial board was wrong in its criticism of three open-records bills before the Legislature.

Special to The Times

I believe "trust is the coin of the realm." Only with the public's trust can those who serve in government use government to help the public. Open government mints trust. With this coin, government serves.

Washington's local governments mint trust with the state's open government laws — the Public Records Act, the Open Public Meetings Act, the Public Disclosure Act (campaign laws) and state and local ethics laws. These laws are ranked among the best in the nation. And Washington's Public Records Act is one of the country's most "user-friendly" laws.

In fact, Washington's Public Records Act already codifies the four principles President Obama pledged to follow to open up the federal government:

• The presumption of openness — when in doubt, produce;

• Do not withhold records to protect public officials and the government from embarrassment;

• Never use nondisclosure to protect personal interests at the expense of the public; and

• Act promptly and cooperatively because public employees are the servants of the public

Yet, rather than acknowledge this fact, The Seattle Times elected to compare President Obama's promise to use technology to increase transparency with efforts in Washington state (Three bad bills block public access, Editorial, Feb. 10).

In criticizing the three Senate bills introduced by Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Shoreline, that would allow agencies to recoup copy costs, The Times suggests agencies are trying to block disclosure rather than embrace technology to increase transparency.

Everyone agrees that technology can be used to increase transparency. Ultimately, it will also save taxpayers money by allowing requesters to obtain records online with little cost to the agencies.

Some jurisdictions, like Whatcom County, are already way ahead of the curve. www.co.whatcom.wa.us/publicrecords/. But in Washington, many agencies don't even maintain the most basic documents on their Web site.

Why: coin. Or not enough coin. Local governments do not have the funds to invest in the technology infrastructure necessary to get records online, especially now when other basic services are at risk.

Open government is not easy. Trust is hard to mint. It also isn't free. Unlike in most states that allow agencies to charge for search time, agencies in Washington charge only for copy costs. Taxpayers foot the bill for the rest. Fairley's bills try to look out for taxpayer dollars by making sure requesters are paying for the actual cost of copies they request. Why should taxpayers have to pay for copies when a requester asks for copies and then chooses not to pick them up?

Our public servants work hard to keep government open and to serve as prudent stewards of taxpayer dollars. It is too bad The Times insists on attacking them simply because they are trying to do both in hard economic times.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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