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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Attorney General: Bungled Records Requests Cost Taxpayers ... And That's Terrible

UPDATE: The Attorney General modified his blog post, which was criticized below. The new version captures what we believe to be Rob McKenna's view of open government. The revised blog post is here. Our old posting about the old version of his blog is below. We thank the Attorney General for clarifying his view on this.

Attorney General Rob McKenna writes this blog piece in which he makes the point that, whether intentional or not, a state or local government's failure to provide public records costs taxpayers a lot.

A fair point. The blog piece goes on to advocate for an optional administrative board to keep these cases out of court, which would lower the cost to taxpayers. So far, so good.

But then the piece implies that records requestors get big payouts from harmless staff mistakes and that the Public Records Act is some kind of lotto for requestors. This hostility to the enforcement mechanisms of the Public Records Act has been building for some time at the Attorney General's Office.

After describing the Harold Carey case, in which Mason County intentionally treated Carey's requests as spam and did not respond to them and then had to pay $150,000 for not even trying to comply with the law, the Attorney General writes: "Carey won $150,000 in fees and fines. Not bad for 'spam' but not such a good deal for Mason County taxpayers."

Harold Carey, a client of Allied Law Group, spent years litigating that case and it cost him far more than the $150,000 he was eventually awarded. He had to sell some land to pay for the case--he had to sell his land because Mason County blatantly violated the law. But he is the bad guy. After losing the case, and therefore no longer subject to penalties, Mason County magically "found" 20,000 pages of public records that were responsive to his request and therefore didn't have to pay an extra dime.

Not bad for not even trying to comply with the law but not such a good deal for Mason County citizens who want their government to follow the law.