Information can't vanish with paper

Because our job description includes letting readers know what their city officials are up to, we view our right of access to government documents with professional concern.

So during a recent committee-level debate about furnishing laptop computers to city council members – said to herald a new, less wasteful age of “paper-free government” – we asked how that nirvana might include ordinary citizens.

As city finance director Ralph Eells rightly pointed out, the issue goes beyond council computers. Because city workers conduct the public’s business in a wired environment, the problem of leaving the required “paper trail” within the network is already upon us.

To be sure: Washington law sets a broad mandate of citizen access to such information. The state Public Records Act, enacted 30 years ago by citizen initiative, basically gives the public the right to inspect any “writing” related to the conduct of government. While there are a handful of exemptions, suffice it to say that each of us is entitled to see much, if not most, of what each public employee writes down on a given day.

That law may have worked reasonably well in the Typewriter Era when it was adopted. But applying the law to the Computer Era is proving troublesome.

Perhaps the most basic difficulty is that in the computer age, the volume of “writing” has expanded exponentially. While the ability to electronically copy information from the Internet or older reports leads to more complete documents, they are also longer. The advent of email has transformed many exchanges that used to be handled verbally, either face to face or over the telephone, into “writings.”

So how do we provide public access to an enormous volume of “writings” with no central repository and no convenient index?

“We do the best we can,” Eells said, acknowledging that no good solution has emerged.

Perhaps we can start by keeping our goals realistic. An organization that must keep the general public informed simply cannot get rid of the printed document – it needs paper agendas, paper memos, copies of ordinances, and copies of all manner of other information that citizens can pick up at meetings, take to the coffee shop, annotate, take home, and perhaps even crumple in disgust.

We’re all for computers – they improve the quality of written work and make it easier to organize huge volumes of material. But digitized information is not an end in itself, and neither city staff nor elected officials should consider it such.

We do suppose that technology and some legal tweaking could someday enhance public access.

Specifically, we refer to the legal doctrine that an email sent by one member of a policy-making body such as a council or school board to all other members constitutes a “meeting.” And because “meetings” must be noticed in advance and open to the public, such a group emailing is illegal.

So one could argue that such exchanges ought to be permissible, provided they’re posted on the city web site, widely “cc’d” or otherwise made accessible. Imagine allowing the public to “eavesdrop” electronically on email “discussions” between council members!

Then again, we wonder if that level of “paper-free government” would find support from those arguing for laptops.

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