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Originally published Friday, January 21, 2011 at 3:42 PM

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Guest columnist

A new sunshine law to save money for citizens and government agencies

Washington's open-records and open-meetings laws are designed to ensure citizens can keep tabs on government; however, too often citizens have to sue to get documents they are entitled to. State Rep. Christopher Hurst is proposing a new program to save citizens, and government agencies, money.

Special to The Times

IT'S your government. You pay for it through your taxes and hire legislators to make it run. Through open-records and open-meetings laws, you retain the right to oversee that government. That's the simple idea behind Washington's sunshine laws.

Occasionally, however, there are conflicts over such policies. Under current law, those denied access to public records or meetings have no choice but to go to court. Lawsuits are costly and time-consuming, many taking years to resolve.

Now state agencies and local governments face a logjam of citizen complaints and expensive lawsuits over the Public Records Act. They face uncertainty about potential liability that may require payment of attorneys' fees, costs, and penalties.

All of this impacts shrinking government budgets, forcing cuts to other vital services in order to comply. In fact, at least one small town in our state considered bankruptcy over a public-records lawsuit. This situation is unacceptable and, quite simply, unaffordable.

Other states have found solutions. Many provide an independent administrative review process to resolve complaints without lawsuits. They use administrative boards to mediate and resolve disputes, put forward nonbinding legal interpretations, investigate potential violations, issue appealable rulings, and offer training for public officials about their responsibilities under the law.

In 2009, the Attorney General's Office and the Auditor's Office created the Open Government Task Force to address growing concerns among governments and the public. The task force was made up of state and local elected officials, citizens and representatives of organizations that champion open-government issues. We held two study sessions and made recommendations on the creation of an administrative board to rule on complaints of violations of the Public Records Act and the Open Public Meetings Act.

In a continued effort to increase access to government records in the most cost-effective manner possible, I'm working to make the creation of an Office of Public Records a reality.

The Office of Open Records would have authority to enforce the Public Records Act. In a pilot program, it would use existing administrative judges housed within the Office of Administrative Hearings. The appeal process would be funded through a reasonable filing fee paid by requesters seeking the office's assistance and also by charging government agencies seeking help.

The idea is to keep public-records disputes outside of court, saving attorney's fees, reducing pressure on the courts and providing records in a timelier manner. Requesters would retain their ability to initiate lawsuits in court. This new process will cost nothing to the state nor add to the current budget shortfall as the program will be entirely funded by agencies or jurisdictions that chose to opt into the process.

I am proud to be the prime sponsor of HB 1044, which would begin this common-sense process that would provide a speedy and inexpensive administrative appeals process for resolving disputes over disclosure of public records; it was heard in a House of Representatives committee Thursday. It would adopt rules to provide clear guidelines for an appeal process that is available for citizens, state and local agencies.

We will require that the office submit an annual report to the Legislature on its activities, and recommend ideas for further reforms of open government laws, with an eye to more access to records at a lower price to taxpayers.

In today's economic environment, the public rightly expects the government to spend its money wisely while still protecting important rights like access to government information. With the creation of an Office of Open Records, we will strengthen our sunshine laws while saving hard-earned taxpayer dollars.

Rep. Christopher Hurst represents the 31st Legislative District, is chair of the House Public Safety Committee and is serving his ninth year in the Legislature.

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