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Monday, December 31, 2007

Seattle Times Editorial Calls Out Soter Majority

This Seattle Times editorial against the Soter decision is not subtle. It names names.

"The court majority — including Chief Justice Gerry Alexander, Justices Bobbe Bridge, Mary Fairhurst, Susan Owens and Barbara Madsen — gives another wink to the increasing practice of agencies keeping information quiet by hiring attorneys to run investigations, then claiming attorney-client privilege. Especially troubling, the majority gives agencies the nod to file lawsuits to intimidate members of the public merely making a request for information. The Legislature should enact a remedy."

Sunday, December 30, 2007

(Longview) Daily News Rips Into Soter Ruling

This case is a big deal, as evidenced by the many editorials from around the state. Here is the (Longview) Daily News editorial on the matter.

It quotes Michele Earl-Hubbard of Allied Law Group and adds:

"Earl-Hubbard is right -- as is [Justice Charles] Johnson in his strong dissenting opinion on the expansion of the attorney-client privilege exemption. There is a need to strike a balance on this issue of attorney-client privilege, of course. But the majority opinion is not balanced, in our view. It would seem to grant the exemption simply because an attorney was present during a meeting or had a hand in producing a requested document."

Wenatchee World Blasts Soter Decision

The Wenatchee World slams the Supreme Court's Soter decision pretty hard in this editorial.

"In any number of touchy circumstances, you could concoct a flimsy-if-feasible scenario that a lawsuit might be in the offing. Employ an attorney, at taxpayer expense, to generate and keep any documents. Voila! Instant secrecy."

Zeeck Hammers Soter Decision

Tacoma News-Tribune executive editor David Zeeck writes this column about the recent Soter ruling. Some especially good parts:

"If a public controversy erupts and you’re a politician or bureaucrat who wants to investigate the matter but hide the results? Hire a lawyer to do it. That way, the court ruled, it’s not a public investigation, but rather attorney work product exempt from disclosure."

"In this new case, the Supreme Court said it’s now OK for local or state jurisdictions to take a public records request immediately to Superior Court to ask if a particular record is subject to public disclosure. That sounds innocent, but it will have pernicious results. The court’s new ruling means the requester will always pay to fight the government, even when the citizen’s claim is legitimate. This government-initiated lawsuit, particularly in the hands of an agency bent on hiding even obvious public records, means a requester will have to spend thousands of dollars (or even tens of thousands) just to get the right to copy documents."

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Brutal TNT Editorial on Soter Case

The Tacoma News-Tribune hits the nail on the head in this editorial on why the Soter decision was a double blow to public disclosure.

Addressing the court's broadening of the attorney work-product exemption, the TNT writes: "The court essentially said that public agencies can keep records secret forever by outsourcing their investigations to lawyers."

On the court's decision to allow agencies to preemptively sue requestors (this is not a typo), the TNT writes, "The maneuver worked, and now the Supreme Court has sanctioned it, giving all public agencies the green light to use taxpayer dollars to file what smacks of strategic lawsuits against public participation."

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Soter Decision Out ... And It's Bad

The Washington State Supreme Court decided the Soter case today on the attorney work product exemption and agencies suing requestors. It was a loss for access to public records.

Here is the majority opinion, the dissent, and a concurrence.

The AP story is here.

The Spokesman-Review story is here.

The Seattle Times story is here.

Here is Postman's piece.

Here is the Seattle P-I article, which quotes Allied Law Group's Michele Earl-Hubbard.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Public Records Request to Santa

We can't make this stuff up. Just when we needed a holiday angle on a topic like open government, this pops up.

Snohomish County to Put Public Meetings on the Web

The (Everett) Herald reports that Snohomish County will stream its county council meetings over the web. The county will also provide links to many of the documents they are discussing at a particular meeting so citizens can follow along.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

TNT Op-Ed on Gov't Spending Searchable Database

This op-ed piece in the Tacoma News-Tribune describes how the federal government is creating a searchable database for citizens to find out how their money is being spent. The article is by Jason Mercier of the Seattle-based Washington Policy Center, a think tank doing phenomenal work on government accountability and many other public policy topics.

A searchable government spending database is a very doable project. The state of Florida partnered with Google to create one. Not to be outdone, Microsoft has indicated a willingness to partner with states to do the same. Hawaii, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Minnesota, South Carolina, Missouri and Texas are currently considering a searchable database. The federal project was sponsored by senators at opposite ends of the political spectrum: Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). It passed unanimously in Congress. This is not a controversial issue. Not even close.

If a government official in Washington state says we don't need this or it's too hard to do, they have something to hide in that database.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Governor Supports Recording Executive Sessions

The Olympian reports the following:

"Gregoire supports having local governments tape-record executive, or closed-door, sessions so judges can review what is said in the event of legal disputes. She is considering whether to request the legislation."

This is good news. We hope the Governor joins the Attorney General and State Auditor in requesting a good bill to require recording of executive sessions.

When we thought the Governor was not doing a good job on open-government issues, we said so. When we think she is doing a good job, we say so.

(Vancouver) Columbian Editorial on Recording Executive Sessions

The (Vancouver) Columbian editorializes about the McKenna-Sonntag (and now maybe Gregoire) bill to require the recording of closed-to-the-public executive sessions.

Olympian Editorial on Shield Law

This Olympian editorial describes journalists' use of confidential sources, the need for the shield law, and, of course Tom Carr.

On the Carr subject, the Olympian writes: "The governor's appointment is highly suspect given Carr's anti-openness record and this latest subpoena fiasco only adds to that suspicion."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

(Longview) Daily News Editorial on FOIA Amendments

The (Longview) Daily News editorializes about the new--and seemingly good--amendments to the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Note the last paragraph of the editorial discussing the fact that journalists account for just 6% of FOIA requests. Citizens and businesses make up the vast majority of requestors. Open-government laws are not just for the media.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

President Clinton Withholds 2,600 Pages of Documents

Former President Clinton, according to the NY Sun, is withholding 2,600 pages of presidential papers from public review.

A few posts below we posted about President George W. Bush's attempt to withhold White House visitor logs. We're non-partisan here: both presidents are trying to withhold information from the public.

Governor's Budget Seeks to Fund Electronic Records

The Governor's proposed budget asks for $250,000 to provide public records in an electronic format. That's good.

Court Orders Release of White House Visitor Logs

The White House did not want to disclose its visitor log so the public could see who is meeting with the President and administration officials. A federal judge disagreed and ordered the logs to be released under FOIA.

Visitor logs revealed scandals in the past administration and, who knows, maybe in the current one.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Olympian Editorial on Recording Executive Sessions

The Olympian editorializes about the proposed legislation to require recording of executive sessions. They write:

"You would think that elected officials would want to protect themselves with an official record of some kind. What if they get bad legal advice, for example. Today it’s their word versus that of their attorney. Again, an audiotape reviewed in private by a judge would settle the dispute.
Public officials who object to the good government legislation say audiotapes would inhibit their conversations. That’s ridiculous. Elected officials should conduct themselves the same way in private as they do in public. They have nothing to fear beyond being held accountable for their actions and words in closed-door sessions. The public’s right to know should prevail."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Recess Time

The Tacoma News-Tribune reports this:

"What’s going on backstage at the Pierce County Council?
Twice in recent weeks the council has taken a recess after a close vote – the first on a sewer rate increase, the second on an ethics code overhaul. In each case the council emerged from recess, voted again and arrived at a different outcome."

Hmm. After a close vote, they recess to their offices and come back with a different vote. And they say there's no "deliberations or discussions" about the matter during the recess.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Withholding Editorial Endorsements

This piece from the Tucson Citizen describes how hard the fight for open government is. It also suggests that newspapers rate candidates on open-government issues and withhold endorsements accordingly.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Public Records Could Have Shown ... Alleged Corruption

This story from Michigan describes how access to public records might have prevented alleged corruption.

This is why open government matters.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

(Vancouver) Columbian Editorial on Tom Carr

The Columbian writes this editorial, which concludes with this paragraph:
The [Seattle] Times deserves praise for vigorously resisting the subpoenas.
Carr deserves no praise, not even for withdrawing the subpoenas, because
they never should've been issued in the first place. Other members of the
Sunshine Committee should learn two valuable lessons, one about the public's
right to know, and another about the chairman of their own committee.


This Seattle Times story discusses open public meetings conducted by phone and via the Internet. Very interesting.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Yakima Herald-Republic Calls For Tom Carr's Removal

The Yakima Herald-Republic says this in an editorial:

Unlike many others in the media, we were willing to give Seattle City Attorney
Tom Carr the benefit of the doubt. We said in August that "unless developments
prove otherwise, we have no quarrel" with him as chairman of the state's new
"Sunshine Committee."

Now there has been a major development -- and we have
to concede that the media worry-warts across the state were right: Carr is the
wrong man to be chairing a committee pledged to help ensure open government.
Gov. Chris Gregoire should reverse her earlier appointment and remove him from
this important fact-finding panel because of his flagrant pro-government,
anti-public's-right-to-know actions to date.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

More on Tom Carr Reporter Subpoenas

Mike Fancher, editor-at-large of the Seattle Times, writes this piece on the shield law, why it matters, and what the issuance and withdrawal of the Tom Carr subpoenas tells us.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Tacoma News-Tribune Blasts Tom Carr Over Reporter Subpoenas

The TNT has this to say in an editorial:

Tom Carr is proving his detractors right.

No matter how much backpedaling he does, Carr has proved himself no ally to
the press and its quest to keep government open and accountable. His ability to
be the publicly minded leader that the Sunshine Committee needs is in more
doubt than ever.

Columbia Basin Herald Editorialzes Against Tom Carr

The (Moses Lake-area) Columbia Basin Herald editorializes:

Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr displayed his personal conflict of interest
concerning open government when he ignored state law to subpoena three Seattle
Times reporters in November as a tactic to defend the city against a lawsuit.

It seems the Seattle attorney is to maintain open government by resolving
records exemptions while he works to stifle open government by ignoring obvious
laws - such as the "reporter shield law," which specifically prohibits his
attempts at subpoenas - and attacking governmental watchdogs.

Chris Gregoire gave Carr a chance to redeem himself as a proponent of open,
transparent government when she appointed him as chair. But his decision to
subpoena the reporters betrays his intentions to side with the government over
people. After all, it is his day job. The only way to return confidence to the
Sunshine Committee is to remove the appearance of a conflict of interest. To do
that, Carr must go.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Seattle Teachers' Union Sues to Prevent Disclosure of Emails

The Stranger reports that the Seattle teachers' union is suing to prevent the disclosure of emails on the Seattle School District's computers. The union seems to be claiming that the emails among union members (which are on the school district's email system) are not public records. A judge issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting disclosure for the time being.

(Note to sensitive readers: some of the ads in The Stranger which are visible from this story are ... not for everyone.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

! Tom Carr Withdraws Reporter Subpoenas !

The stories are here and here

Tom Carr says in this Associated Press story that he didn't know the subpoenas were issued. The story quotes Allied Law Group's Michele Earl-Hubbard.

Proposal for Searchable Information on State Spending

The Washington Policy Center, a Seattle-based non-partisan think tank, has a detailed proposal for putting state spending information online in a searchable format. Other states are doing it successfully.

A darned good idea.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Tri-City Herald Editorial on Richland Closed Meetings

The Tri-City Herald editorializes about some curious closed meetings at the City of Richland.

As usual, it seems to come down to the fact that there is virtually no downside ($100 penalty of personal money) to violating the Open Public Meetings Act. And that requires someone to spend their own money to bring a suit.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Tom Carr Reporter Subpoenas--Editorials and Columns

  • The Seattle Times editorial: "The Seattle city attorney's decision to subpoena three Seattle Times reporters threatens to set a precedent disastrous to the public, which counts on the media to scrutinize government officials."
  • The Skagit Valley Herald editorial: "We had considerable doubt that Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr was the right person to lead an effort to reduce the number of exemptions to the state’s open records laws. His latest misadventure reaffirms our view that Gov. Chris Gregoire made a big mistake by appointing Carr to chair the state’s Sunshine Committee. ... Carr has not a shred of credibility remaining as a steward of the public’s right to know. If he won’t step down voluntarily, the governor should fire him and appoint a chairman who has a demonstrated belief in open government."
  • Crosscut column: "Rossi has promised to make Gregoire's management an issue in the campaign. In his kick-off, he labeled her as 'the governor for the government, not the governor for the people,' a line that many political analysts, even those sympathetic to Gregoire, felt had resonance. Gregoire's appointment of Carr is now Exhibit A for her questionable judgment, one that will win a sympathetic hearing not just from citizen activists and civil libertarians but from major media in Washington that are alarmed at Carr's over-reach."
  • State Sunshine and Open Records: "When Tom Carr was appointed head of the Washington state government’s 'Sunshine Committee' back in August, the freedom-of-information community was more than a little concerned. Their concerns were well-founded."

Sunday, December 2, 2007

"Hooray for Open Government as a Hot Campaign Issue"

The Tacoma News Tribune's David Zeeck writes this column in which he notes three recent events showing that open government is once again a hot political topic. This only happens when voters care about an issue.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Tom Carr Reporter Subpoena Fallout

  • The Associated Press adds some interesting details to the story about Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr's subpoenas to Seattle Times reporters demanding that they reveal their confidential sources. Gov. Gregoire appointed Tom Carr to chair the Sunshine Committee. Her spokesperson, Lloyd Brown, is quoted in the AP story:

    "We need some time to talk to Tom Carr," Brown said. "What's troubling about the situation is the appearance of the person who's heading the Sunshine Committee challenging the ... shield law."

  • The Bellingham Herald's government and political reporter, Sam Taylor, blogs about the political implications of the Carr subpoenas.

  • Tom Carr responds in this December 3, 2007 P-I story.

! Tom Carr Subpoenas Seattle Times Reporters to Reveal Confidential Sources

Remember the outrage when the Bush administration demanded that New York Times reporter Judith Miller reveal her confidential sources? Many noted that jailing reporters and coercing information from them might be common in many oppressive parts of the world but not in America. What kind of government would demand that a free press reveal its confidential sources?

The City of Seattle. Liberal, progressive, enlightened, freedom-loving Seattle.

Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr has taken a page out of the Bush play book and subpoenaed three Seattle Times reporters demanding that they reveal their confidential sources. Read all about it.

Accountable government requires confidential media sources. How is it that open-government proponents like us are in favor of confidentiality? Simple. Often whistle blowers know information about government misconduct but fear retaliation for coming forward. If the whistle blowers can get the information out to a reporter and can be assured of confidentiality, they are much more likely to tell what they know.

Here is an explanation of how confidential sources are vital to reporting stories the public needs to know in order to keep government accountable.

P.S. Tom Carr is Governor Gregoire's pick to chair the Sunshine Committee. Shining sunlight on government is a whole lot harder when reporters are forced to testify about confidential sources.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Politicians: Don't Let This Happen To You

If you are an elected official, like Missouri Governor Matt Blunt (R), who thought that destroying emails was no big deal because no one cares about open government, think again. The Missouri Attorney General is investigating the Governor over this. It looks like open government and the scandal surrounding the destruction of agency emails might be one of the big issues in the Governor's 2008 election (or un-election).

Here's a web site on the email destruction issue put up by Gov. Blunt's opponents. Ouch.

The Missouri AG is running against the Governor in 2008 so the email issue is a convenient political hammer. But that's the point: open government can be a political hammer.

Washington politicians at all levels: Don't let this happen to you. Follow the law and retain emails and then provide them promptly and completely under the Public Records Act. Your staff tells you what a hassle the Public Records Act is and you want to make them happy, but voters--and the newspapers they read--actually care about open government.

Tip of the hat to the State Sunshine and Open Records blog for this story.

Monday, November 26, 2007

(Vancouver) Columbian Editorial on School Bus Video Case

The (Vancouver) Columbian writes a fabulous editorial on the recent Lindeman ruling by the state Supreme Court, which held that a school bus video tape must be disclosed under the Public Records Act. The Columbian writes:

"How ridiculous for the Kelso School District to contend that video taken on one of its school buses was private student information. Thank goodness, the state Supreme Court remembers who the buses and schools belong to: taxpayers."


Yakima Herald-Republic Editorial on Recording Executive Sessions

The Yakima Herald-Republic editorializes on the proposed legislation requiring local governments and state commissions to make an audio recording of executive sessions. (Executive sessions are the portions of an otherwise open meeting that are closed to the public to discuss some topic such as the price the government will pay for real estate.) Executive sessions are often abused. The government body may claim executive session for something legitimate like discussing a real estate purchase but then the discussion drifts into something like an unrelated--and controversial--ordinance that must be discussed in public. Without an audio recording of what happened, it is very difficult to prove the discussion drifted from a legitimate topic to an illegal one. This bill would remedy that.

The legislation is requested by Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) and State Auditor Brian Sonntag (D). The Herald-Republic writes:

"Any time two statewide elected officials from opposite political parties agree on a significant piece of legislation, voters and lawmakers should pay close attention -- something good is usually afoot."

The editorial goes on to describe the Washington State Association of Counties' opposition to the proposed legislation and then adds:

"We wonder why because any governmental unit not abusing the executive session exemption in the state's Open Meetings Law has nothing to fear from this legislation.
And those that are abusing it, well, they deserve to be found out."

That is why the counties oppose it.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Seattle Puts Knowingly Illegal Confidentiality Clause in Civil Rights Settlement

The City of Seattle settled a federal civil rights case in which an African American was severely beaten by the Seattle Police Department. The Seattle Times story is here. Secrecy, or attempted secrecy, is part of this story. It tells you a lot about the "sunshine" culture at the City of Seattle.

The victim's attorney and the city wanted to keep the amount of the settlement secret--why would the public need to know how much of their money was being spent to settle civil rights cases anyway? Those pesky busybodies just want to get their noses in "private" matters.

The victim and the city knew the settlement agreement was a public record, but put a confidentiality clause into the settlement agreement anyway. But here's the kicker: City Attorney Tom Carr initially cited the (knowingly illegal) confidentiality clause as a reason to withhold the amount of the settlement. The city relented (and followed the law) only after the Seattle Times made a public records request.

This guy is the chair of the Sunshine Committee?

Friday, November 23, 2007

State Employees' "Private" Emails Ordered Disclosed

A Kentucky court rules that "private" emails among state employees must be disclosed. The story contains a good discussion of why "private" emails--sent on agency time, contained on agency servers, etc.--are, indeed, public records.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Tribes Need Open Gov't Too

Open government is good for every kind of government. This Associated Press story describes the lack of financial transparency at the Yakama Nation.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

State Supreme Court Did Not Rule on Executive and Legislative Privileges

The Washington State Supreme Court ruled on the I-601 spending-limits case, a component of which was executive and legislative privilege. However, the court declined to address the privilege issue.

Tri-City Herald Editorial About Open Meetings Violation

The Tri-City Herald editorializes about an apparent Open Public Meetings Act violation by the (bigger-than-you-think) Kennewick Irrigation District. This shows that while the legal track may be impractical--no one sued the District because they probably couldn't afford to--the accountability track is alive and well. District commissioners, who are elected, probably do not enjoy editorials like this. Maybe they will be deterred from future violations solely because of political pressure brought on by the editorial. That's the accountability track. And it's free.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Public Records Show ... Jail Guards Working Massive Overtime

Just after saying (one posting below) that the Tacoma News Tribune does tons of accountability reporting using public records, look what pops up in the next edition of the TNT. A story--made possible by public records--about jail guards in Pierce County racking up massive overtime. Excessive overtime is important to the public because tired workers might make unnecessary mistakes (like accidentally letting dangerous prisoners out of jail).

This TNT editorial from November 23, 2007 describes why too much overtime is a problem.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Accountability Reporting

Readers of og-blog know that access to public records is often the only way journalists can publish important stories--and tell us things we want and need to know as citizens. Dave Zeeck, executive editor of the Tacoma News-Tribune, writes about how these stories hold public and private institutions accountable and provides a clear example. He links this accountability to the media's First Amendment obligations. He calls it accountability reporting and it's a big deal at the TNT. You might have noticed how many og-blog postings entitled "Public Records Show ..." discuss TNT stories.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Sunshine Committee Issues First Report to Legislature

The Olympian reports that the Sunshine Committee issued its first report to the Legislature. They're working through the 300 or so exemptions slowly, but Tim Ford, the Attorney General's representative on the committee, says they are making progress.

Public Records Show ... $6.2 Million (So Far) in County Sexaul Harassment Suit

The Olympian reports that the tab so far in the sexual harassment case against the Thurston County Prosecuting Attorneys Office is $6.2 million. Public records show the costs. And you wonder why Thurston County is so adamantly upset about the Public Records Act ....

At first Thurston County refused to provide the legal invoices to the public based on a faulty argument that the invoices were not disclosable under the Public Records Act. Then The Olympian urged the Legislature to pass an unusual clarifying bill declaring that invoices are, indeed, disclosable. (The Legislature doesn't often pass bills saying, "Seriously. We meant what we said in the past. But in case you can't read, we'll say it again.") Only after a specific law passed saying the records are disclosable, the county began to provide them. Previous og-blog postings on the legal invoice issue are here, here, and here.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Public Records Show ... Teacher Sending Sexual Text Messages to Students

Yet again the the Tacoma News Tribune is able to report an important story because of access to public records. This time it is a teacher who sent some seemingly racy text messages to some of his female students, a fact we can now know about because the Tacoma News Tribune obtained a copy of the detailed police report through the Public Records Act. Future public records will also show how (or if) the school district disciplines the teacher.

Who are perhaps the biggest opponents of the Public Records Act? Teachers unions and school districts. Go figure.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

HUGE VICTORY: Lindeman Decision by Supreme Court

Today was a great day for open government in Washington State.

The Washington State Supreme Court held 7-2 today that a videotape recording on a school bus showing an altercation between students must be disclosed. The parents of one of the students requested the recording presumably to determine if the other student was appropriately disciplined. The school district refused to provide the tape arguing that it was a record in a "student file" (huh?) and was "personal information" (double huh?).

The majority decision is here, a concurring opinion which is slightly more pro-openness than the majority decision is here, and the partial concurrence/dissent opinion which is essentially against disclosure is here.

The Supreme Court justices finding in favor of disclosure are:
  • Chief Justice Gerry Alexander
  • Justice Susan Owens (opinion author)
  • Justice Charles Johnson
  • Justice Bobbe Bridge
  • Justice Richard Sanders
  • Justice Tom Chambers
  • Justice James Johnson

The Supreme Court justices essentially finding against disclosure are:

  • Justice Mary Fairhurst
  • Justice Barbara Madsen

Note: Allied Law Group's Michele Earl-Hubbard argued as an amicus curiae (Latin for "friend of the court") for the records requestor and part of her argument was quoted with approval by the majority opinion.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Counties Oppose Recording Executive Sessions in Effort to Curb Forest Fires and Childhood Obesity

The (Vancouver) Columbian reports that the Washington State Association of Counties voted to oppose a legislative proposal by Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) and State Auditor Brian Sonntag (D) to require governing bodies to record closed-to-the-public executive sessions. The recording could only be reviewed by a judge privately in his or her chambers to see if the executive session was on one of the few topics governments are allowed to discuss privately like the price real estate the county is buying or selling.

Without a recording, it is very difficult to know whether the executive sessions are proper under the limited grounds for excluding the public from open meetings. The counties claim in the story that recording would require a transcript to be prepared and that the transcript would be a disclosable public record, making a confidential executive session impossible.

Wrong. The proposed legislation would not require a transcript at all and expressly provides that the recording is not subject to disclosure (unless a judge determines that it was not a proper executive session). The counties might as well claim that the proposed legislation requires forest fires or childhood obesity.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Washington Coalition for Open Gov't Legislative Agenda

Mossback at Crosscut reports on the Washington Coalition of Open Government's 2008 legislative agenda. The story contains a link to the WCOG legislative agenda.

Olympian Editorial on New Prison Chief's Need for Openness

The Olympian editorializes on the very poor open-government record of outgoing Department of Corrections head Harold Clarke. The editorial describes why the new head of corrections needs to change the closed-government culture at DOC.

Past og-blog postings on DOC public records mistakes are here, here, here, and here. And we've only been posting for a few months.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Walla Walla Union-Bulletin on Privacy Versus Public Disclosure

Rick Doyle, editor of the Walla Walla Union Bulletin, explains the interplay between privacy and public disclosure. It's really good. He uses several examples to illustrate his point. You should read it.

This column should put to rest the accusation that open-government advocates are just nosy and want to know about people's purely personal lives.

Pierce County's Attempt to Sue Records Requestor Defeated

The Olympian reports on a recent ruling dismissing Pierce County's countersuit against a public records requestor, the Building Industry Association of Washington.

Note: Allied Law Group represents the requestor so we will not comment.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Olympian Wins Award For Fighting for Public Records Law

The Olympian won the prestigious 2007 Ted Natt First Amendment Award for the paper's work to obtain public records from Thurston County showing the amounts the county paid in a sexual harassment suit against the Prosecuting Attorney's Office--and for passing a law to ensure that others don't have the same problem. The Olympian, spearheaded by the paper's executive editor Vickie Kilgore, worked to pass a law making it crystal clear that legal invoices were disclosable. Legal invoices were already disclosable, but when Thurston County still refused to turn them over, the Legislature had to pass a law saying, in essence, "Seriously. We meant what we said a while ago. Disclose these." Here is a past og-blog posting on the passage of this law.

The Olympian's Vickie Kilgore said it all: "Getting a law passed is one thing. Getting officials to follow that law is another."

P.S. Why was Thurston County fighting so hard to keep the invoices from the public? The total tab was $6 million for court awards, legal fees, etc. As one of the legislators who co-sponsored the bill said, the county had six million reasons to fight so hard.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

District Called Out by AG's Office For Open Meetings Violation, Does Do-Over

The Tri-City Herald reports that the Kennewick Irrigation District (which is bigger than it sounds) convened a second and apparently legal meeting to hire a manger after the Tim Ford, the open-government ombudsman at the Attorney General's Office, said the first meeting violated the Open Public Meetings Act.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

King County Elections Officials Will Not Provide Instant Result Information

The Seattle P-I reports that King County can instantly provide precinct-by-precinct election results tonight ... but won't. The story quotes Allied Law Group's Greg Overstreet.

The Public Records Act talks about agencies providing the "most timely possible action on requests for information." The Attorney General's model rules on public records say "readily available" records should be provided "as soon as possible."

How Not to Handle a Public Records Request for Emails

The Kansas City Star writes this brutal editorial on Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt's email shenanigans. This editorial might be the most stinging open-government smack down we've ever seen.

Note to elected officials in Washington state: don't let this happen to you.

Public Records Show ....

You'll just have to read this Tacoma News-Tribune story to see. Yet another example of why access to public records keeps government accountable.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Tri-City Herald Editorial on Releasing Hospital Mistake Records

The Tri-City Herald editorializes about the Washington State Hospital Association's recent about-face on providing hospital mistake records.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Seattle Times on Washington Getting an "F" on National Open-Gov't Study

Mike Fancher, Seattle Times editor-at-large, writes this column on the recent "F" Washington state received in a national open-government study. This column is a must-read.

To see the full report, go to last week's og-blog posting on this. It shows that corruption-challenged states like New Jersey and Louisiana beat Washington's pants off on open government. That should concern you. A lot.

P.S. How is it possible that Washington gets an "F" on open-government when Gov. Gregoire is running state government and she has, according to Governing Magazine, "brought state government a transparency it had never known before"? Either Washington has a fabulous open-government system or Governing Magazine got a little carried away.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Let's Not Get Carried Away

Governor Gregoire has been named one of nine top public officials by Governing magazine. Congratulations.

But, as David Postman's blog points out, part of the reason the magazine named her was that "Gregoire had brought state government a transparency it had never known before."

What? Who writes this stuff?

Governor Gregoire recently (two days ago) received kudos from og-blog for settling the DOC electronic records case. We give credit where credit is due. But, with all due respect Madam Governor, you have not "brought state government a transparency it had never known before." Not even close. Naming Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr as chair of the Sunshine Committee? Initially withholding the Sunshine Committee records? Huh?

State government transparency has improved some. But credit for transparency goes instead to the (bi-partisan) combination of Attorney General Rob McKenna (R), House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler (D), and State Auditor Brian Sonntag (D).

Congratulations on the award from Governing magazine. But let's not get carried away about the transparency thing.

Douglas Moore: Sunshine Troublemaker of the Week

The State Sunshine and Open Records blog, which covers open-government issues nationwide and is terrific, gives a weekly award to the "Sunshine Troublemaker of the Week." This is a pesky citizen who--dawg gone it--asks for public records and even insists that the agency follows the law. Don't you hate people like that?

This week's Sunshine Troublemaker of the Week is from Washington state. He is Douglas Moore who fought the state Department of Corrections to obtain electronic records in an electronic format. He lost in Thurston County Superior Court but DOC, after some prodding from the Governor, settled the case, agreeing to provide the records in an electronic format and paying Moore $65,000 in attorneys fees. We would add that Moore's attorneys, Bendich, Stobaugh and Strong, get some credit here; they probably worked on a contingency fee and were not assured of being paid for their hard work. Congratulations to all.

Past og-blog postings on the Moore case are here, here, and here.

Supreme Court Asked to Review Pipeline Decision

The Bellingham Herald reports that a coalition of newspapers are asking the state Supreme Supreme Court to review the (awful) Court of Appeals decision allowing pipeline companies to block the disclosure of pipeline records.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

! Electronic Records Case Settles--DOC Agrees to Provide Electronic Records in Electronic Format

The Olympian reports that the state Department of Corrections has settled a Public Record Act case after refusing to provide electronic records in an electronic format. DOC will provide the electronic records in an electronic format but now will also pay $65,000 to the requestor in attorneys' fees.

Gov. Gregoire appears to have intervened in this case and ordered DOC to quit being silly. While no one can know for sure because of attorney-client privilege, perhaps Attorney General McKenna also strongly encouraged his client, DOC, to follow the law.

Gov. Gregoire did the right thing. She deserves credit for taking a step that has a positive impact on open government. Gov. Gregoire must follow through and continue putting pressure on her agencies to follow the law. Now that she has done the right thing she should keep doing it.

Texas Court: Gov't Officials' "Private" Work-Related Emails Are Public Records

Last week it was the Ohio Sunshine Committee, and now a Texas court has ruled that government employees' work-related emails on private email accounts are disclosable public records.

Same thing in Washington according to the Attorney General's (non-binding) Model Rules on Public Records.

Thanks to an anonymous source for bringing this Lone Star court ruling to og-blog's attention.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

AG's Office Says OK to Withhold Medical Mistake Info

The Seattle Times reports that the Attorney General's Office has weighed in on the medical-mistake information issue (previously described in og-blog postings here and here). The AG's Office says it's OK to withhold the information.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Public Records Show ... Former Building Official Sending Emails Under False Name

The (Vancouver) Columbian reports that a former building official was sending emails under a a fake name to his former employer falsely alleging various improprieties at the building department. Kind of a weird story, but one that is possible because of access to public records:

"The Clark County Sheriff's Office reviewed surveillance video from FedEx Kinko's and confirmed that [the former building official] sent at least six of the e-mails, according to county reports released Friday in response to a public records request from The Columbian."

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Editorials on Hospitals Withholding Mistake Info

The Yakima Herald-Republic, The Olympian, and Walla Walla Union-Bulletin editorialize on the state Department of Health's decision to withhold public records on hospital mistakes (little things like operating on the wrong part of the body). DOH was withholding the records despite the fact that laws were passed specifically to require such disclosures. It looks like DOH caved to pressure from the Washington State Hospital Association and refused to release the records. After the outrage, the hospitals decided to authorize release.

Each editorial highlights a different component of the story.

The Yakima Herald-Republic editorial provides concrete examples of the importance of the information withheld.

The Olympian editorial describes DOH's caving to the hospital association.

The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin editorial details the outrage from the public.

The hospital association's decision to back down illustrates that enforcing open-government laws has two tracks: legal and accountability. When the legal remedies are insufficient--and here a law allowed disclosure but apparently no records requestor had the money for litigation--then the accountability track (also know as "outrage") kicks in. As it should. That's the system: legal remedies supplemented by accountability remedies.

Note to government decision makers: If you are considering unlawfully withholding public records, getting sued is only one of the two problems you face.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Washington Gets "F" in Report on State Open-Gov't Laws

The National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Better Government Association teamed up to grade the states' open-government laws. Here is the report and the state-by-state scorecard.

Washingtonians can quit congratulating themselves. We got an "F."

The two states in the country best known for corruption--New Jersey and Louisiana--actually got "A"s while Washington got an "F." Think about that.

Is it time for an initiative to clean up the Public Records Act?

Gov't Officials' "Private" Work-Related Emails Are Public Records

There's an urban myth out there that government officials can use private email accounts to conduct government business and--poof!--they're not public records because they're not on government email accounts. Wrong.

The Ohio Sunshine Committee recently concluded that these emails are public records. The Washington Attorney General's Model Rules on Public Records come to the same conclusion:

"Sometimes agency employees work on agency business from home computers. These home computer records (including e-mail) were 'used' by the agency and relate to the 'conduct of government' so they are 'public records.' RCW 42.17.020(41). However, the act does not authorize unbridled searches of agency property. If agency property is not subject to unbridled searches, then neither is the home computer of an agency employee. Yet, because the home computer documents relating to agency business are 'public records,' they are subject to disclosure (unless exempt). Agencies should instruct employees that all public records, regardless of where they were created, should eventually be stored on agency computers. Agencies should ask employees to keep agency-related documents on home computers in separate folders and to routinely blind carbon copy ('bcc') work e-mails back to the employee's agency e-mail account. If the agency receives a request for records that are solely on employees' home computers, the agency should direct the employee to forward any responsive documents back to the agency, and the agency should process the request as it would if the records were on the agency's computers."

WAC 44-14-03001(3) (footnote omitted).

If you have requested private-account emails relating to government business and been told they're not "public records," you should consider contacting us.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Public Records Show ... Elections Officials Not Keeping Backups of Electronic Voting Machines

This tid bit from Wisconsin provides the perfect illustration of why access to public records matter. Now we know that Wisconsin elections officials are not keeping electronic backups of voting machine data which is apparently required by law.

Alert to (the many) enterprising reporters reading this blog: This is a pretty good story idea.

Public Records Show ... Past Allegations Against Mental Health Counselor

The (Aberdeen) Daily World reports that a mental health counsel currently under investigation by state authorities has a been accused in the past. "Information about the complaints against [the counselor] were revealed through a public records request submitted to the state Department of Health by The Daily World."

Public Records Show ... Allegations of Abuse at Home for Developmentally Disabled

Once again the Tacoma News-Tribune uses public records to verify allegations of abuse of the vulnerable. This allows the TNT to report the story to the public so that maybe things are corrected. This story describes allegations at the Rainier School, a DSHS facility for the developmentally disabled:

"A total of 81 allegations of suspected physical, sexual or mental abuse of residents at the 400-person facility were reported to state officials between October 2004 and this month, the Department of Social and Health Services said. The information came in response to a News Tribune disclosure request following the KIRO-TV report, which aired Oct. 3."

But providing public records is such a burdensome "unfunded mandate" for government ....

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Washington Policy Center Op-Ed on Transparency of Gov't Spending

Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center recently had an op-ed piece he co-wrote published on The article concerns the public's current inability to find out any information on most pork-barrel projects. A (stunningly) bi-partisan proposal in Congress would create "Google government" where citizens can type search terms and find budget information. A darned good idea.

For more good ideas, see the Washington Policy Center's web page:

State Labor Deal Documents Now Available

It took a nasty Public Records Act law suit for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation to get these records, but they finally did and now you can view them at their blog.

Note: Allied Law Group represented EFF in the last stages of the case.

UPDATE: Hospitals Agree to Disclosure of Their Mistakes

UPDATE (October 24, 2007): Looks like hospitals are now agreeing to disclose the reports of their mistakes they send to the Department of Health. This reversal by the hospitals is described in this story from today's Spokesman-Review. The Spokesman broke the original story of hospitals resisting disclosure on October 19, 2007.

Tim Ford, AG's Ombudsman, Gets Well-Deserved Kudos

A Washington citizen helped by Tim Ford, the Attorney General's Open Government Ombudsman, posts this about her recent great experience with Ford and how he actually helped her get some public records. It sounds like the citizen's expectations were low when government said, "we're here to help" but Ford did so.

Kessler, McKenna Honored for Open Gov't Work

This article in the Port Townsend & Jefferson County Leader describes the Freedom's Light Award given to Rep. Lynn Kessler (D) and Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

In the article, both Kessler and McKenna describe why open government matters to people's lives, especially that little thing about a well-informed media being able to keep government accountable.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Open Meetings Are Mean

Did you ever wonder what opponents of the Open Public Meetings Act think? (Of course they don't admit they oppose the OPMA, they just think it's mean to sue people to enforce it.) You can read their view in this Seattle Times op-ed.

The opponents' main contention is that suing to enforce the OPMA is "political." Guess what? When elected officials are accused of violating a law designed to let the public see what their elected officials are doing with their tax money, it might have some impact on how people vote. It's supposed to.

If you really think the Open Public Meetings Act is a mean political weapon then introduce a bill in the next Legislature to repeal it. Oh, but the angry reaction from the public who doesn't want government to operate behind their backs might be "political."

Speaking of "political," we couldn't help noticing that this op-ed defending those poor OPMA victims on the Shoreline City Council who are up for re-election just happened to be published exactly when ballots arrived by mail. Bringing this up is probably just mean and "political."

For the pro-openness perspective, see this September 17, 2007 Seattle Times editorial.

Feds Withhold Pilot Survey

NASA conducted a thorough survey of commercial pilots and the results point to needed improvements in airline safety and better customer service. NASA refuses to provide the survey, according to an Associated Press story in the Seattle Times.

The reason: "A senior NASA official, associate administrator Thomas S. Luedtke, said earlier that revealing the findings could damage the public's confidence in airlines and affect airline profits."

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Legal Loopholes Keep Some Teacher Misconduct Records Secret

This Associated Press story in the Seattle P-I describes how education agencies across the country use legal loopholes to prevent the public from knowing about teachers' past sexual misconduct allegations or convictions.

Why would agencies serving the public do such a thing? Teachers unions don't want their members' "problems" revealed and when you donate millions of dollars and deliver hundreds of thousands of votes....

This separate AP story in the P-I found 2,500 teachers were punished for sexual misconduct in the past 5 years across the country. And it wasn't easy to find out about them given the public records laws that protect teachers, not parents and students. A third AP story in the P-I showed that Washington state had 125 teachers disciplinary actions for sexual misconduct from 2001 to 2005.

Context is important. There are 3,000,000 teachers in the U.S.; 2,500 were disciplined for sexual misconduct. In Washington, there are 65,000 teachers and 125 were disciplined for this. Fair enough. But these handful of "bad apples" are around our kids all day long and all we're asking for are the public records showing these problems so we can see if the school district is properly addressing these situations. Is that asking so much?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Bellingham Herald Piece on How Shield Bill Affects Reporting

Scott Ayers at the Bellingham Herald writes this piece on the U.S. House passage of a federal shield bill and how the confidential sources it protects have enabled important news stories to get out the public.

Public Records Show .... Pit Bulls Had History of Attacks

The Tacoma News-Tribune can report--because of access to public records--this: "Almost three years before a neighbor’s pit bulls attacked and seriously injured Sue Gorman, other dogs from the same Key Peninsula house menaced a 15-month-old girl."

This is important to know because the City of Tacoma is considering a pit-bull ordinance. Now the public has more information on a topic that can literally kill you or a 15-month-old girl.

Seattle Times Editorial on U.S. House Passing Reporter Shield Bill

This editorial describes why the passage in the U.S. House of a reporter shield bill is a good idea.

It's rare that Congress passes a good bill--perhaps this explains why their approval rating is at an all-time low of 11%--but it's nice to see.

Friday, October 19, 2007

White House Might Be Ordered to Retain Emails

A U.S. magistrate on Friday rejected arguments by the Bush administration and urged a federal judge to order the White House to preserve copies of all its e-mails.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

State Auditor's Op-Ed Piece on Open Gov't

Brian Sonntag wrote this op-ed for the Seattle Times. It's great.

This op-ed sounds exactly like the things he says in person. He really believes these things. Brian Sonntag is a terrific public servant.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

U.S. House Passes Federal Shield Bill

This story describes the passage in the House of a federal "shield" bill to allow reporters to protect confidential sources. Washington state passed a similar bill this year.

Sunshine Committee Delays Action on Legislative Records

The Associated Press covered the Sunshine Committee meeting held yesterday in Ellensburg. The Committee is delaying a recommendation on the narrower definition of "public record" that applies to legislators' records until the state Supreme Court decides whether, or to what extent, a constitutional "legislative privilege" applies.

Jonathan Bechtle of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation wrote this op-ed in Monday's Seattle P-I on legislative privilege. Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center wrote this on legislative privilege and the Sunshine Committee's treatment of it.

Peter Callaghan Explains Why Open Meetings Matter

This column is one of the best explanations of why local government meetings should be open to the public.

We particularly like this: "Democracy can be a real drag, especially with all of these legal and moral demands to conduct it in the open. It would be so much more efficient and convenient if elected officials could simply do the people’s business in private."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Olympian Editorial on Pipeline Case

The Olympian editorializes about the recent Court of Appeals decision to allow pipeline companies to shield information from the public.

Note the last paragraph (on the last page).

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Sunshine Committee Update

This Associated Press story describes the first exemptions the Sunshine Committee will be tackling next week.

Public Records Show ... Public Employees' Six-Figure Salaries

The Spokesman-Review was able to report this story because of access to public records.

We bet some public employees are murmuring that their salaries are a matter of "privacy." They'd be right if their salaries were not paid with our tax dollars.

Pierce County Suing Records Requestor

This story in The Olympian describes a suit by Pierce County against a public records requestor for filing a "frivolous" lawsuit to obtain public records.

Note: Allied Law Group represents the records requestor in this case so we will not comment. But we really wish we could.

Public Records Show ... Earmarks and Contributions Often Linked

This Seattle Times investigative reporting series used public records to show a link in about half the cases between special pork-barrel federal budget expenditures (called "earmarks") and campaign contributions. (I thought the "new" Congress elected in 2006 was going to ban earmarks in the first 100 hours. Gee, what happened?)

Here is the Times story behind the story explaining how the investigative reporters used public records to obtain this information and then make the linkage. Excellent work.

School District Budget Meetings Should Be Open to Public

This letter to the editor in the Whidbey News-Times describes why the Oak Harbor School District should open up its budget meetings to the public.

Note: Allied Law Group represents the letter writer.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Open Gov't Laws For Everyone, Not Just Media

Some people critical of open-government laws sniff, "Those are just for the media."

Not so. Studies show that media account for only a small fraction of public records requests. Normal people are by far the largest users of open-government laws.

This story in the Tallahassee Democrat describes this fact.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bellingham Herald Editorial on the (Ridiculous) Pipeline Case

The Bellingham Herald editorializes on the pipeline case. They (correctly) note:

"Citizens just continue to lose in Washington. The attitude of some bureaucrats, legislators and some in the court system is that they know best and that citizens should just take their word for it. That is not how it is supposed to work. Citizens pay for government. The information government collects is for the citizens. But the clouds of government secrecy get darker every year."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

City Council Member Glad To Post All City Emails

Here's some good news.

See: local governments can, indeed, use technology to make openness easier. The Earth did not stop spinning because city emails were easily accessible to the public.

It can be done--so why aren't more local governments doing it?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Shield Law Is Now Officially on the Books

The 2007 Legislature passed the Shield Law providing journalists with a privilege against being forced to testify in proceedings or provide evidence revealing a confidential news source and other things.

It takes the agency that officially publishes the laws to catch up with the new ones the Legislature passes. They have now.

The Shield Law is now in the law books as RCW 5.68.010.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Cost of Transparency: $223 per Hour

Jonathan Bechtle of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation made a public records request to Pierce County--a government agency downright hostile to public disclosure, in our opinion--and received a pretty high bill. Here is Bechtle's blog piece from on it.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Open Gov't Is The Main Issue in One Election

The Bellingham Herald report about an election for water district commissioners in which open government is the main issue. The water district has a record of significant open-government problems and has been cited by the State Auditor's Office. Now the main issue in the campaign is whether candidates will change the closed-government ways of the incumbents.

This is how it's supposed to work. The law--the Public Records Act or Open Public Meetings Act--usually doesn't solve every problem. It costs money to hire lawyers, judges rule the wrong way, and litigation causes delays in obtaining a result; in short, legal remedies are often impractical. But accountability, where voters base their selections in part on whether a candidate is being open or not about the public's business, is free and usually pretty swift on election day. Accountability kicks in to guide government to follow the law. Sometimes. But it's better than having to sue over everything.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Committee To End Meetings by Phone and Internet

The Tacoma News-Tribune reports that the Pierce County Local Emergency Planning Committee plans to discontinue meeting by phone and via the Internet.


The Attorney General's Open Government Ombudsman, Tim Ford, is quoted in the story.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

One of the Worst Public Records Rulings Ever

The Bellingham Herald describes the ruling by Division II of the Court of Appeals yesterday that pipeline records are exempt from disclosure under the (very narrow) "terrorism" exemption. State and local government will probably run with this and we'll be amazed at how many things they now claim relate to "terrorism."

Here is the decision.

The authoring judge is Robin Hunt.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Judge Limits Ex-Presidents' Control of Public Records

CNN reports a federal judge has overturned President Bush's executive order giving ex-presidents and their families the ability to decide whether to release some presidnetial papers.

Monday, October 1, 2007

White House Claims It's Not Subject to FOIA


Open government is a bi-partisan issue: some Democrats oppose it (notably in Washington state) and some Republicans do too (notably in the federal government). It seems that whomever is in control opposes open government.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Same-Day Response Time: It Can Be Done

We don't think of the City of San Fransisco as a model of open government, but even they have an ordinance requiring same-day responses to public records requests in many cases. Whoa.

Here is a link to the Death By Email blog posting on this.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Public Records Show ... School Officials Fail to Report Crimes on School Grounds

The Seattle P-I reports that Seattle School District officials failed to report to police, among other things, the alleged sexual assault of a developmentally disabled girl by fellow students. Reporting crimes on school grounds to the police probably generates a lot of paperwork for school officials so it's better that student-criminals instead receive a stern warning that their felonies ought to stop or they might be in big trouble--like cleaning the chalk board after school for every felony or something like that. At least there's less paperwork. Whew. What a relief for parents of student-victims.

How could the P-I learn this and then let the public know (so maybe it can be corrected)?

"A Seattle P-I review of police and Seattle Public Schools records shows that case isn't the only likely crime that wasn't reported to police. While a majority of incidents on school campuses were recorded into the district's safety and security logs and reported to police if necessary, some incidents weren't -- including cases of assaults and strong-arm robberies."

Remember which groups are often the most vocally opposed to the Public Records Act: school districts and teacher unions. Wonder why.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

$219 for Copy of 158-page Record

If you think things are bad in Washington state, how about in Pennsylvania. A local government there attempted to charge a newspaper $219 for a 158-page record--charging for hand folding and "typesetting" (huh? they still do that?). Just for fun, click on the link in the story to the $219 estimate--what a hoot. The lawful maximum charge would be $22.

Tip of the hat to Mindy Chambers of the State Auditor's Office for bringing this to og-blog's attention.

P.S. If you have paid, or been asked to pay, a ridiculous amount for copies of public records in Washington state, please let us know at

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Presidential Papers

This Seattle Times editorial discusses a federal bill to overturn a Bush administration executive order allowing the President to withhold presidential papers from the public. The bill would overturn the executive order provision empowering relatives of the President to decide whether to allow the release of presidential papers. A Republican senator is thought to be blocking the bill.

Open government is a non-partisan issue. In the presidential papers story, the culprit appears to be a Republican. In Washington state there are plenty of Democrat culprits. And some Republicans. And some more Democrats. And so it goes.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Port Commissioners Pick Replacement In Secret Meeting--UPDATED

The (Longview) Daily News reports that port commissioners met in secret--and drew a name out of a hat--to decide who to appoint as a replacement for a retiring commissioner.

"However, the state Attorney General Office said narrowing the list down and reaching a consensus behind closed doors in executive session violates the state's Open Public Meetings Act. 'You can evaluate the qualification of an applicant in executive session; however, when a governing body decides to take final action, it must be in public,' said Tim Ford, assistant attorney general for government accountability in the state Attorney General's Office in Olympia. 'If they had a private agreement --- and it sounds to like they did --- that's making a vote and that sounds like a final action to me,' Ford said. 'Any collective positive or negative decision made on any motion, such as filling a position, is a final action. And that should have been done in public.'"

The Attorney General's Open Government Internet Manual section 3.4(A) and (B) (scroll down) describes why a vote in secret is illegal.

UPDATE (09/25/07): The (Longview) Daily News editorializes that the Port of Longview should simply admit the mistake of violating the Open Public Meetings Act and then donate the personal penalty amount, $100, to charity.

Public Records Show ... School Bus Driver Gets Speeding Ticket

The (Vancouver) Columbian's public records request to a school district leads to a news story showing that a school bus driver--on the first day of school, no less--received a speeding ticket. Is this information that parents in that school district would like to know?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Seattle Times Editorial on Disclosure of Records by Life Sciences Discovery Fund

The Seattle Times editorializes on the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, a state venture capital fund consisting of $350 million in tax money to provide investment to bio-tech companies. The law creating the Fund allows much of the information about the projects funded with tax money to remain secret. A past og-blog posting discusses the secrecy of the records held by the Fund.

The Times writes: "Public accountability should go like Velcro with public money. The people deserve to know how — and how well — their money is being spent."

Open Public Meetings--By Phone or Email?

This Tacoma News-Tribune story explores the idea of open public meetings in which council members call in by phone or participate by computer "chat."

We think a little technology is good but too much means there really isn't a meaningful public "meeting." It's OK when one council member cannot physically be present and calls in via speaker phone so that all those in the traditional public meeting can hear. What's not OK is conducting an online cyber meeting in which no physical meeting takes place. If 90% of communication is visual (picking up on visual cues from the speaker such as a cocked eye brow or rolling eyes), then the public can learn much more of what's going on when they can physically observe the council members. You probably get much less out of a conference call than a face-to-face meeting. You probably get even less out of email exchanges. (If email really communicated as much as a face-to-face meeting, why do we need those stupid emoticons?) For centuries the judicial system has appreciated the fact that it takes a face-to-face communication to get all the meaning. Courts have long required witnesses to almost always be physically so the jury can "look them in the eye." The same principal should apply to open meetings.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Governor Says Delete Emails; Attorney General Says "No"

OK, OK, this is a story from Missouri, not Washington state. Just trying to use a flashy headline to attract readers. Forgive us.

Here's the story about the Missouri Governor saying it's fine and dandy to delete emails.

Here's the story about the Missouri Attorney General saying it's illegal.

Here's the original og-blog posting about the wholesale deletion of email and why it's really terrible.

P.S. The Missouri situation illustrates that open government is a non-partisan issue. The anti-disclosure Missouri Governor is a Republican. The pro-disclosure Missouri Attorney General is a Democrat. Things seem to be the reverse in Washington state.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Sunshine Breakfast Editorialized (There's a Moral to This Story)

This Seattle Times editorial describes this morning's Washington Coalition for Open Government awards breakfast and, more importantly, the accomplishments of the award winners.

Note to government officials contemplating getting away with open-government violations: The largest newspaper in the state cares so much about open government that it writes an editorial about a breakfast. Factor that into your calculations about whether there will be any blow back from an open-government violation.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Governor Asks State Agencies to Provide Electronic Records

We give credit where credit is due. And some credit is due here.

In a memorandum to all state agency directors dated September 18, 2007, Gov. Gregoire asks state agency directors to provide electronic records to requestors in an electronic format if possible. Specifically, the Governor is "asking" (her words) agency directors to "work with people who request electronic copies of non-exempt public records and, whenever possible, to satisfy those requests." Og-blog is working on getting a link to the memo.

Here is a link to the Olympian article discussing the Governor's memo.

State agencies can look to the Attorney General's model rules on electronic records for guidance. The Attorney General adopted them on June 15, 2007. Perhaps the AG's model rules persuaded the Governor to follow suit? Who knows.

We can't help wondering if the Governor's sudden willingness to provide electronic records stems from the political battering she's been taking this summer over the Tom Carr Sunshine Committee appointment, initially withholding the Sunshine Committee records, and her overall poor reputation on open-government issues. You can decide for yourself.

However, the Governor deserves credit for her electronic-records directive. If she really forces reluctant state agencies to comply, our hats will be off to her on this. If she doesn't ... we'll let you know. In a big way.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sunshine Committee Update: Cost To Gov't Not a Criterion

The Olympian reports that the Sunshine Committee met on Tuesday and decided the criteria it will use to judge exemptions. Some additional details on the committee meeting are provided on the Liberty Live blog by Jonathan Bechtle of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

Significantly--and we mean really significantly--the full Committee rejected a proposal to use the cost to government as a criterion. Providing public records is something government must do, and the cost of providing public records is a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of what government spends. And without public records, it's virtually impossible for the public to know how its money is being spent.

Can you imagine if mutual fund managers told investors that it would cost several hundred thousand dollars (out of billions and billions in spending) to tell investors how their money was being spent and that therefore the cost of informing investors was cost-prohibitive? That would be forgetting whose money is at stake and who works for whom. And when it comes to government, it's the people's money--not the government's. The government works for the people and the people have put some measures in place to remain informed about what their servants are doing. Perhaps this is a good time to remind some in government of what the Public Records Act says:

"The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created."

Yakima Open Meetings Violation?--Updated

The Yakima Herald-Republic reports on an executive session of the City of Yakima. The apparent topic of the executive session was finding out who leaked something to the newspaper. This doesn't seem to fit within the authorized grounds for an executive session.

UPDATE (9/20/07): The City says it only met in executive session to review the performance of the city manger, which is allowed under the Open Public Meetings Act. But how do we know?

Perhaps if the executive session were recorded, city council members would be deterred from straying from authorized closed-session topics (such as employee performance reviews) into unauthorized topics (such as who leaked a story to the newspaper). A recording of the executive session would also allow a judge to listen to the meeting (in private) and then determine if an OPMA violation occurred.

But wait: there's proposed legislation to do exactly this.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Second TNT Editorial on Shoreline Open Meetings Case

The Tacoma News-Tribune writes a second editorial on this case.

"Sad to say, holding round-robin meetings without a quorum in order to circumvent the open meetings law is not an unusual tactic in local government. The Shoreline Four knew perfectly well what they did was devious and unethical. If they had simply accepted fines, Shoreline taxpayers would have been far better served."

NOTE: Allied Law Group represented the citizens in this case.

What Does $3.5 Billion Get You?

The City of Seattle's budget for 2008 is $3.5 billion, reports the Seattle Times. No question that lots of important things--police, fire, street repair, etc.--are included in this figure.

However, the City is chronically slow--ridiculously slow--in providing public records and often deletes far more information than other municipalities. Response times are so slow that most requestors no longer need the records by the time the City gets around to providing them. The public records system in the City of Seattle is broken.

Perhaps in a budget of $3.5 billion the City could find some resources to upgrade its public records system. The City's public records staff would probably welcome additional help.

Let's get to the fundamental question: Why spend any money on providing public records? To allow the public to know, for example, if the police are acting properly, if the fire department is doing what it needs to, if streets are getting repaired, etc. To allow the public to know if the City is doing all the things it is getting paid $3.5 billion to do. That's a fair question to ask, and the answer requires prompt access to public records.

Providing public records is part of what government does. It just is. Public records are not some annoying afterthought, as they currently seem to be in the City of Seattle.