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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.