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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.

Monday, September 17, 2007

TNT Editorial on Shoreline Open Meetings Case

The Tacoma News-Tribune editorializes on the Shoreline case:

"It’s bad enough when local-government officials get caught making decisions in private that, according to state law, should be made only in open public meetings.

"But it’s much worse when taxpayers have to foot hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills to defend officials accused of such misconduct. ...

"At best, the defendants’ maneuvering was shabby; at worst, it was illegal. Shoreline taxpayers will pay a high price either way."

Why would the TNT, whose readers are mostly in Pierce County, run an editorial on a case all the way up in Shoreline?

"The [Shoreline] case should serve as an object lesson for Pierce County elected officials on the wisdom of honoring both the letter and the spirit of the open-meetings law."

That's why.

The media sincerely care about open government. Government officials need to remember that. When the law is inadequate to deter violations--the penalty facing the Shoreline defendants was a measly $100, which is less than a speeding ticket--then non-legal deterrents kick in. Like editorials telling voters how elected officials are violating the law and not acting in the public interest.

Seattle Times Editorial on Shoreline Open Meetings Case

This Seattle Times editorial blasts the City of Shoreline for not only violating the Open Public Meetings Act but for then blaming its woes on the citizens who filed suit to expose the violations:

"Former Mayor Constance King and another former council member, Kevin Grossman, have taken some criticism for filing the lawsuit in the first place. But the fault is not theirs; they did a service in alerting citizens of the violations.

"The fault lies with the stubbornness of the accused council members, who still have not admitted wrongdoing despite compelling evidence. A violation of the act carries a penalty of $100 per person per violation. If they had paid the fines, they would have been out a nominal amount of money.

"In addition to the $159,000 paid to cover plaintiff's legal fees, the city of Shoreline has spent around $350,000 in legal fees.

"And for what? To defend elected officials trying to make a point that is indefensible?

"Come on."

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

Public Records Show ... District Might Have Known About Alleged Rapist-Teacher's Past

This Tacoma News-Tribune story describes how public records might contradict the Tacoma School District's claim that they didn't know about a teacher's alleged past. The story reports "officials knew of issues in [the teacher's] past earlier than they’ve previously acknowledged, personnel records appear to show."

Just another example of why access to public records matters. And another example of why many school districts and teachers' unions really dislike the Public Records Act.

UPDATE (09/18/07): Public records show more things of interest in this case.

Yakima County Sued For Not Providing Jail Records

The Yakima Herald-Republic reports that Yakima County has been sued for not providing public records relating to a death in its jail. The requestor claims the County did not respond to the request; the County says it did.

If the County really did fail to provide a response, the County is toast. As the court in Smith v. Okanogan County, 100 Wn. App. 7, 13, 994 P.2d 857 (2000) held, "When an agency fails to respond as provided in RCW [42.56.520], it violates the act and the individual requesting the public record is entitled to a statutory penalty."

Saturday, September 15, 2007

$159,000 Settlement in Open Meetings Case

This story in the Seattle Times describes a settlement in the Open Public Meetings Act case against the City of Shoreline. The City settled the case before trial for $159,000 in attorneys' fees to the citizens. The City spent approximately $400,000 defending the council members.

Note: Allied Law Group represented the citizens in the case. As far as we know, this is the largest amount ever awarded in an Open Public Meetings Act case.

Judge Orders School District to Release Records

This Tacoma News-Tribune story describes how a judge ordered the Federal Way School District to turn over records regarding a teacher's alleged sexual contact with a student.

On one hand it's great that a disclosable document was turned over. But on the other hand, it's ridiculous that a requestor must pay thousands of dollars for its own attorneys fees, as the TNT did, to get a clearly disclosable record. Make a valid public records request and it will cost you thousands of dollars--what a great way to punish people for making requests.

And it's currently the law in Washington. It needs to change.

Friday, September 14, 2007

"Nobody Saves Emails for Three Years"

This story from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch describes the Missouri Governor's habit of not retaining emails because, hey, "Nobody saves emails for three years."

That might be true for regular home computer users. But no law requires them to retain and provide emails like the law requires government agencies to retain emails for varying lengths of time and then provide them.

Let's put the shoe on the other foot. Suppose a sales-tax law requires a small business to keep receipts of gross sales for three years and provide those records upon request to the Department of Revenue. Then the government audits the small business and asks for the electronic records. In response, the small business person shrugs and says, "Nobody saves emails for three years." Do you think the benevolent government will say "Golly, sorry to bother you" or rather "You have the right to remain silent ..."

Yes, keeping records and having to turn them over upon request is a hassle--welcome to small businesses' world. Government should get used to retaining electronic records (and, by the way, server storage space for electronic records is monumentally cheaper than printing and filing in file cabinets). Government needs to join the digital age where--gasp!--emails must be saved for a while.

It's the law.

Tip of the hat to Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center for the heads-up on this story.

Open Courts Case: Jury Selection Cannot Be Secret

This Spokesman-Review story describes a recent Court of Appeals decision in which a murder conviction was overturned because the jury was partially selected in a closed court session.

Here are the majority and dissenting opinions.

The Washington State Constitution, article I section 10, provides: "Justice in all cases shall be administered openly, and without unnecessary delay." If a person has a right to a jury of his or her peers, the public should be able to see the jury selection process to ensure that it is fair. Secret trials and court proceedings are a bad thing. Just look at the judicial systems of most other countries to see why.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

City Faces "Ridiculous" Legal Fees to Defend Open Public Meetings Act Case

The Seattle Times reports on an Open Public Meetings Act case against the City of Shoreline. The lawsuit alleges that some city council members secretly met to decide whether to fire a city manager.

Note: Allied Law Group represents the citizens in this case so we will not comment.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

(Vancouver) Columbian Editorial on Belated Release of Sunshine Committee Records

The (Vancouver) Columbian editorial says, among other things, "It's ridiculous to claim voluntary members of state advisory committees are 'employees.'"

Monday, September 10, 2007

Tri-City Herald Editorial on Release of Sunshine Committee Records

The Tri-City Herald editorializes on the Governor's "half-hearted turnaround" and says it "doesn't change much."

Olympian Editoral on Governor's Decision to Release Sunshine Committee Records

The Olympian editorializes about the Governor's about-face:

"The irony was inescapable: Gov. Chris Gregoire refusing to turn over records associated with a committee studying access to public records. ...

"Back in 2001, during a statewide audit of responses to requests for records, then-Attorney General Gregoire said, 'The bottom line is that people are entitled to pretty much any document that comes to my mind.' Withholding documents builds skepticism, Gregoire said at the time, and makes people believe government is 'hiding something.' 'When (citizens) are denied unjustly, they feel completely disenfranchised from government. They lose trust.'

"Apparently Gregoire was reminded of that fact because Friday she did an about face and agreed to release the Sunshine Committee records sought by the AP. It was definitely the right decision because by withholding Sunshine Committee records, Gregoire only added to the public's skepticism and lack of trust."

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Gov. Gregoire Releases Sunshine Committee Records

The Associated Press reports that Governor Gregoire reversed her earlier decision to withhold Sunshine Committee records. She released the records on Friday.

Fair is fair. When the Governor or any other government official does the right thing, we acknowledge it. However, the bottom line is that Gov. Gregoire's instinct was to withhold the information. After several brutal editorials she finally decided to release the records--which is more of a political survival tactic than an "open-government" philosophy.

Deleted Email Case: Government Wins

Here is the Olympian story.

No comment.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Another Editorial on Withholding Sunshine Committee Records

Just when we honestly thought the ire at the Governor's decision to withhold public records about the Sunshine Committee had died down, the Skagit-Valley Herald editorializes:

"Gov. Chris Gregoire rained a bit on the principles that established the state’s Sunshine Committee last week by refusing to make public the names and resumes of individuals she passed over for seats on the panel. ... [T]he notion of any records relating to the Sunshine Committee being nondisclosable is preposterous. But no more so than the governor’s claim that unpaid committee members are state employees."

The Skagit Valley Herald is the second paper today to editorialize on this, joining the Bellingham Herald (see posting below).

Bellingham Herald Editorial Re: Sunshine Committee

Just when you thought they would stop, here is another editorial taking the Governor to task over the Sunshine Committee: "Yes, the governor is withholding information about the committee for public openness. Can she not see the irony in her poor decision?"

Cal. Ruling: Public Employee Records Must Be Disclosed

This from the L.A. Times on a recent ruling by the California Supreme Court:

"The public has the right to inspect the hiring records of police agencies throughout California and to learn the names and salaries of government employees, the California Supreme Court decided Monday. In two lawsuits brought by newspapers, the state high court ruled against a state commission and unions for police and other government workers and declared that salary and hiring records should be open to the public.'Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy,' wrote Chief Justice Ronald M. George, the author of both majority decisions."

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Think Zink

Have you made a public records request and gotten the run-around? If so, you should think Zink. That is, think about Zink v. City of Mesa. This case essentially says the run-around violates the Public Records Act. Here is a link to the court opinion and a link to a past og-blog posting on this case. Here is a link to an editorial about the importance of the case.

If you've been getting the run-around and it's time to enforce your rights under the Public Records Act--rights made even more enforceable by Zink--then consider contacting a law firm that some people think is pretty good at these cases (if you don't mind us saying so).

Monday, September 3, 2007

Gov. Gregoire Won't Release Records About "Sunshine Committee" (!) -- UPDATED

This is truly amazing.

The Associated Press reports that Gov. Gregoire will not release records showing who inquired about serving on the Sunshine Committee. The Governor cites an exemption (RCW 42.56.250(2)) allowing an agency to withhold applications for public "employment." But Sunshine Committee members are volunteers. They have normal day jobs (newspaper editor, for example). How in the world are Sunshine Committee members government "employees"?

Only one word can describe withholding public records about a "Sunshine Committee."

UPDATE 1 (Saturday): The Tacoma News Tribune's political feature "The Nose" writes this: "From the Washington Ministry of Irony: Gov. Chris Gregoire is refusing a public records request for the identities of some of the nominees who weren’t picked to serve on the new 'Sunshine Committee.' You know, the group charged with reviewing whether government secrecy has run amok."

Dave Zeeck, Executive Editor of the Tacoma News Tribune, posts this description of the AP story: "From the just-doesn't-get-it file ..."

Quite a few newspapers are running the AP story: The Seattle Times, Seattle P-I, (Vancouver) Columbian, Bellingham Herald, Olympian, (Everett) Herald, Tri-City Herald, Yakima Herald-Republic, Spokesman-Review, and Tacoma News Tribune.

Even TV news is on this story: KOMO and KNDO/KNDU.

UPDATE 2 (Sunday): The (Everett) Herald editorializes: "Her interpretation of the law is a monumental stretch, at best. Volunteers on an advisory committee are public employees? The two newspaper executives on the Sunshine Committee would chafe under that definition. Other officials who appointed members, Attorney General Rob McKenna and Auditor Brian Sonntag, said they had no problem turning over the requested records."

Patrick O'Callahan, editorial page writer for the Tacoma News Tribune, has this to say on his Inside the Editorial Page blog: "Is Gregoire – no great champion of open government – trying to conceal the actual champions she did turn down? Just a thought. No, make that a suspicion." Ouch.

This story is getting national attention. The National Freedom of Information Coalition blog has this.

UPDATE 3 (Monday): The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin says this in their editorial: "A dark cloud has already formed over Washington state's new Sunshine Committee, a 13-member panel formed to review and modify or eliminate exemptions to the state's public records law. Gov. Chris Gregoire has decided not to name those who applied for a spot on the commission but were not selected. The governor cited an exemption that says applications for public employment can be kept secret. That's nonsense. These are applicants to a citizens committee and the citizens have every right to know who was not selected. Gregoire's decision is an ironic twist that gets this committee off to a dubious start."

UPDATE 4 (Tuesday): The (Centralia) Chronicle editorializes: "Gov. Chris Gregoire's actions relative to the new committee established by the Legislature to examine the validity of exemptions to the state's Public Records Act is a prime example of why the panel is needed. [After withholding the Sunshine Committee records] we have the irony of our governor, who claims to be a big advocate of open government, withholding what should be public information on applicants to a panel on open government."

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Gov. Gregoire's Past Statements on Open Government

After reading the posting above about Gov. Gregoire refusing to provide public records about the Sunshine Committe, you might be interested to read these quotes from a 2001 Associated Press story back when she was the Attorney General:

"'The bottom line is that people are entitled to pretty much any document that comes to my mind,' said state Attorney General Christine Gregoire.

"She said the state’s public-disclosure laws were designed to make Washington’s government one of the most open in the nation, and she was disappointed by the audit’s findings that some agencies were not following them. Withholding documents builds skepticism, Gregoire said, and makes people believe government is 'hiding something.' 'When (citizens) are denied unjustly, they feel completely disenfranchised from government,' she said. 'They lose trust.'

"Gregoire said agencies should err on the side of full disclosure, meaning if they’re in doubt as to whether something should be released, they should release it."

Tip of the hat to the person who confidentially provided this to us. By the way, the source is a staunch Democrat.

Open government is a non-partisan issue. Some Democrats support it, some oppose it. Same with Republicans. But Gov. Gregoire is starting to tip the balance with her decision to withhold the Sunshine Committee records and her appointment of Tom Carr.