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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.