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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.