Pierce County proposes public-records ombudsman

There may soon be a single point of contact in Pierce County for searching government records.

A county public-records “ombudsperson” was one topic discussed at an open-government forum Wednesday night at the Tacoma Library’s main branch. Looking for public records can be a daunting task, said Pierce County Councilmember Shawn Bunney (District 1), but an ombudsperson would help individuals and businesses decide what they need and then help them find it.

“Openness is a primary prerequisite of responsible and responsive government,” said Bunney, who is drafting an ordinance to create an ombudsperson in Pierce County modeled on a similar position in the state Attorney General’s Office. “Too often public-records requests are dumped on a clerk without allocating additional time or funding. I think the public deserves better.”

When Washington state’s open public records act was created by initiative in 1972, there were two exemptions to what could be disclosed. There are now more than 300 exemptions, said state Attorney General Rob McKenna, whose “Sunshine Committee” will be reviewing each one and making recommendations to the Legislature next year.

“Most of these exemptions should be removed,” McKenna said.

State Auditor Brian Sonntag said it’s mindset that characterizes governments’ approach to public records. If jurisdictions decide they’ll work to make public records available, it’s different than if they try to find ways to exempt records from disclosure. “In the end, remembering whose business we’re doing is paramount,” Sonntag said. “We can’t forget who’s writing the checks.”

Sonntag and McKenna both lauded Bunney’s proposal. At least one member of the public also liked what he saw at Wednesday’s forum.

“I’m really a flag-waving, stand-on-a-soapbox supporter of open-government initiatives,” said Robert Matney of Edgewood, who often researches public records for an e-mail newsletter. “Anything that gets that off the ground, I’ll support it.”