The state Legislature’s effort to be transparent — following a recent state Supreme Court ruling that lawmakers must follow the state Public Records Act like local city councils and school boards — has become, well, ambiguous.
Lawmakers and their staffs have no clear plan as to how they will file documents and make them accessible to the public.
This was brought into focus by Crosscut reporter Melissa Santos recently. Santos reported that the state Capitol is going paperless, not necessarily to save paper, but to make complying with the Public Records Act easier for legislators. Even handwritten notes are a no go.
“The paper-free policies being instituted at the Capitol are only one manifestation of lawmakers’ confusion when it comes to following the Public Records Act, which voters initially approved at the ballot box in 1972,” Santos wrote for Crosscut, an independent, nonprofit news site.
While these policies have not been officially enacted by either house of the Legislature, many lawmakers have chosen to go paperless to ensure they aren’t falling down on their duty to properly archive and maintain hard copies, Santos wrote.
“Our office is striving to ensure strict compliance with the Public Records Act,” reads a placard outside the office of state Rep. Laurie Dolan, D-Olympia. “Therefore, we are not accepting any paper handouts, legislative agendas, or invitations.”
The de facto policy in the Capitol, as expected, has rubbed some folks the wrong way as they want to pass along paper to lawmakers they visit.
The House and Senate, which are said to be working on an official policy, need to come to consensus that will work for the Legislature and, far more importantly, the people of Washington state.
Alternatives to not accepting paper are available. For example, Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said he accepts paper documents as a Kirlkland City Council member. The documents are then scanned into computers so they can be electronically searched.
“It’s very easy to do with modern scanning equipment,” Nixon told Santos.
To be fair, lawmakers have had only since mid-December to adjust to the reality that they must follow the Public Records Act.
Nevertheless, a paperless mandate does not — in the long run — seem to be a serve the public well.
Ultimately, lawmakers have a responsibility to do the people’s work, and that means being transparent with the public and making it as easy as possible to communicate with constituents who send paper documents, typed letters and handwritten notes.
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