Lawmakers Eye Expanding Open Government Laws in Wash.

By Melissa Santos, January 15, 2014, The News Tribune

Lawmakers are again considering legislation that would strengthen open government laws in Washington state.


One proposal before the Legislature this year would require city councils and other governing bodies to post their regular meeting agendas online. Another would mandate that certain public officials receive training in the finer points of the state Public Records Act and the state Open Public Meetings Act.


The bill to require online posting of meeting agendas 24 hours in advance wouldn’t apply to government agencies that don’t have a website, or to ones that have fewer than five employees.


State Rep. Brad Hawkins, a Republican from East Wenatchee who is sponsoring House Bill 2105, said he was surprised to learn recently that state law doesn’t already require online posting of meeting agendas.


“It only requires public agencies with governing bodies to issue notice of meetings,” Hawkins testified during the bill’s hearing Tuesday before the House Government Operations & Elections Committee.


“I would characterize this bill as a modest first step at updating the Open Public Meetings act to reflect our online society,” Hawkins said.


No penalties are outlined in Hawkins’ bill for governing bodies that fail to comply with the proposed posting requirement, nor would failing to post an agenda invalidate any action taken at a public meeting.


Another bill, House Bill 2121, would require elected leaders and public records officials to receive training in state open government laws within 90 days of taking office. The public officials would have to go through additional training every four years.


Supporters of the training requirement said at a committee hearing Tuesday that it would help reduce the number of times government employees and elected officials unknowingly violate government transparency laws. The state auditor’s office identified 250 instances of “open government related-issues among local governments” in 2012, according to the agency’s annual report.


“We all too often see that (public officials) lack the training necessary to know the basic obligations that flow from the open records act and the Open Public Meetings Act,” Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, the bill’s sponsor. “It’s going to reduce those penalties and liabilities because people will know.”


Though testimony for Pollet’s bill was overwhelmingly supportive Tuesday, Brian Enslow, a lobbyist for the Washington State Association of Counties, said most agencies at the county level already provide such training and don’t need the mandate.


Enslow added that local governments’ main costs associated with open government laws stem from “overly burdensome and harassing” records requests from citizens — not state penalties for violating the law. He’d like to see the Legislature address that issue, he said.


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