Tens of thousands of files on the Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and tribal and treaty records of federally-recognized tribes throughout the Northwest — these are just a sampling of the many historical records housed in the Seattle Archives and Records Center on Sand Point Way in Seattle.
They are records that tribes, researchers, archivists and historians depend on and use frequently.
And it all may be leaving Washington state for national archives centers in Kansas City, Mo., and Riverside, Calif., thanks to the Federal Office of Management and Budget’s (OFMB) approval last January of a lower board’s recommendation that the center be closed, the building sold off and the records moved.
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced this month that his office had filed federal Freedom of Information lawsuits against three agencies that had a hand in that decision. He is asking under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for public records he had requested more than six months ago related to the decision.
Ferguson is also sending a letter to a fourth agency that has demanded tens of thousands of dollars to produce the requested records, informing that agency that if it continues to fail to produce the documents, he is prepared to sue.
“Not one of the agencies has provided a single document to the Attorney General’s Office — an egregious violation of the federal open government law,” Ferguson wrote in his announcement.
Under FOIA, agencies generally have 20 business days to respond after receiving a document request.
According to Ferguson, two of the agencies — the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) and the Office of Management & Budget (OMB) — failed to respond at all to his requests.
The third agency, the General Services Administration (GSA), informed Ferguson’s office in April that it had identified the responsive records and would begin producing them after review by the agency’s attorneys. But, to date, Ferguson said, “it has unlawfully refused to follow through on its agreement.”
The fourth agency, the Public Buildings Reform Board (PBRB), responded in July — nearly six months after Ferguson’s request — demanding that taxpayers pay more than $65,000 to properly redact the records Ferguson had requested. The documents involve property decisions, and are not related to national security or any other sensitive governmental information, he said.
Ferguson’s letter informs the PBRB that he is ready to sue the agency as well if it does not produce the records.
“The decision to close the National Archives in Seattle has far-reaching impacts across the Northwest,” Ferguson said. “The first-hand, historical records contained there (are) essential to the cultural fabric of our communities. The federal government did not seek any local input on its decision to move these important records more than 1,000 miles away, and now illegally refuses to provide documents about how the decision was made. The people have a right to know.”
Ferguson filed the suits in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
Hilary Pittenger, curator of collections at the White River Valley Museum, said that while the loss of the archives won’t affect the White River Valley Museum directly, it will hurt people who use the museum — especially Native Americans, who rely on it for researching federal treaties — and jobs will be lost among the community of archivists.
“We will lose their expertise,” Pittenger said.