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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

They Can't Even Spell "Accountability"

This story from KING 5 describes how the City of Tacoma put one of its guiding principles--"accountibility"--on calendars for city employees. Except that's not how you spell the word.

Thanks for this tip from MR at the VRWC.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bill Passes Giving Public Right to Comment at Public Meetings

What the heck?  An open-government bill passed in Olympia?  Is this for real?

Apparently so.  HB 1552 requires statebodies holding a meeting subject to the Open Public Meetings Act to allow the public to comment.  This press release explains it.

The bill passed the House and Senate unanimously.  It was sponsored by Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Okanagon), who is a very pro-open government legislator.  Nice work, Rep. Kretz.

The Governor needs to sign it for it to take effect.  Unanimous in the House and Senate almost always means a gubernatorial signature.

UPDATE: Bob Meinig of the Municipal Research Service Center corrected us by noting that state bodies, but not local bodies, are covered by the bill.  The original og-blog post said local bodies were covered.  Thank you for the correction. 

King County Settles Public Records Case Over Elections for $225,000

The Seattle Times reports on Stefan Sharkansky's case against King County.  He asked for records relating to the fact that the County had more votes than voters in the 2004 election (the one in which King County kept finding more and more votes for Gov. Gregoire, who eventually won by 124 votes). 

The County will pay Sharkansky $225,000.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

School District Sued for Releasing (Not Withholding) Records

The Whidbey News-Times in Oak Harbor has this story about a school district releasing public records about an alleged teacher sexual incident. The release of the records appears to have been required by the Public Records Act. Now the teacher is suing the school district for releasing the records.

Someone should tell the teacher's attorney about this little part of the Public Records Act, RCW 42.56.060, which provides:

"No public agency, public official, public employee, or custodian shall be liable, nor shall a cause of action exist, for any loss or damage based upon the release of a public record if the public agency, public official, public employee, or custodian acted in good faith in attempting to comply with the provisions of this chapter."

Immunity for releasing records. It's a key part of the Public Records Act. It gives agencies the confidence of knowing that they won't get sued for releasing records--they can only be sued for withholding them. This is a big incentive.

P.S. Thanks to "Kokanee Bill" for this seeing this story and letting us know about it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Tom Carr's Side of the Open Meetings Flap

Here is an op-ed by Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr in Crosscut concerning the attempted closure of a City council meeting on budget cuts.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Olympian Editorial on Mason County Case

This editorial in The Olympian describes the recent $145,000 award to a records requestor against Mason County for violating the Public Records Act.

Of particular interest to readers of og-blog is the fact that Mason County was ordered to pay the highest possible penalty for a violation, $100 per day, which has never happened before (to our knowledge).  The editorial quotes Allied Law Group's Greg Overstreet about the penalty award: "I've never heard of it being awarded in any other case, and I actually keep track of these things."  

NOTE: Allied Law Group represented the requestor, Harold Carey.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hostility to Open Gov't in Pennsylvania

This story describes how Pennsylvania state government isn't exactly welcoming a new state open government ombudsman.

To all of those who claim a pro-open government stance is just an "easy" political issue for politicians, we ask this: if being pro-open government is such a political no-brainer, why is the Governor of Pennsylvania acting this way?

If open government is such a no-brainer political issue, why aren't local government officials in Washington state falling all over themselves to provide public records and open up meetings? It's because open government means: (1) scrutiny on the decisions of those running things, and (2) ire sometimes from agency staff members (and their unions) who might be doing something wrong. Guess which side is the "easy" political decision?

Monday, April 13, 2009

UPDATED (2) City of Seattle Plans Secret Budget Meetings

The City of Seattle plans on having meetings of four of the nine council members (less than a quorum) to discuss how to cut the budget reports the Seattle Times.

Why? Because you little citizens can't handle all the facts. The story says "Council members said they oppose closed-door meetings in general but said there's no reason to bore the public with complex briefings and logistical decisions." Yep, it's just your money but there is "no reason to bore" you with the details. You are being treated like children. And a majority of your fellow citizens keep voting for these people.

Is this sub-quorum meeting a violation of the Open Public Meetings Act? Here's what the Attorney General's Open Government Internet Manual (section 3.4(B))says:

"A meeting [which triggers the OPMA] occurs if a quorum (that is, a majority) of the members of the governing body were to discuss or consider, for instance, the budget, personnel, or land use issues no matter where that discussion or consideration might occur. What about if less than a quorum is present? Several cases hold that the OPMA is only triggered by a quorum of the governing body, so the 'action' of less than a quorum is not subject to the OPMA. See, e.g., Eugster v. City of Spokane, 128 Wn. App. 1, 8, 114 P.3d 1200 (2005). Others argue that the legislative history of the OPMA indicates that the statute formerly required a quorum for an 'action' but was amended to apply to an action with less than a quorum. Laws of 1985, ch. 366, § 1(3)."

Note that the Eugster case is summarized as "the 'action' of less than a quorum is not subject to the OPMA." So if one half of the non-quorum (the four out of nine council members) does something, it's not the action of the whole council under Eugster. Yes, but "discussion" or "deliberation" of city business is "action" which triggers the OPMA. So if any information or discussion or deliberation travels from one half of the non-quorum to the other half of the non-quorum, you have a "discussion" or "deliberation" by the whole council; it just happened in two stages instead of one.

Since the City of Seattle thinks you are a child, the following illustration is appropriate. If one group of kids at an elementary school cafeteria table discuss something and have one kid go over to the other table and repeat it, and then bring back the thoughts of the second table to the first table, you have a "discussion" albeit it in two stages.

When one half of a quorum of a city council shares information with the second half of the quorum, this is called "jumping the quorum." Which is what will happen. Which is why the City of Seattle will violate the OPMA.

UPDATE 1: The City Council decided not to hold the sub-quorum meetings. The Attorney General's Office got involved and--credit where credit is due--apparently the City Attorney, Tom Carr, urged the Council to open the meetings.

Here is a Seattle Times editorial on opening the meetings; here is the later editorial congratulating the Council for doing so.

The Evergreen Freedom Foundation wrote a letter to the City Council that could be read as the threat of an Open Public Meetings Act lawsuit. Probably "just a coincidence" that the Council decided to open up the meetings.

(Sorry we're a day late on posting this. We took a day off on Friday. There's no news on a Friday, right?)

UPDATE 2: Here is Danny Westneat's column on this debacle.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

TNT Editorial on Coal Plant Negotiation Records

The Tacoma News-Tribune writes this editorial about Gov. Gregoire's decision to hold secret negotiations with a coal company over a power plant.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Waiting Five Days to See Something Sitting Right There

This blog posting by the TNT's Ian Demsky describes the Town of Ruston's policy of making requestors wait five business days to see public records (a town council agenda in this case) that are readily available.

Here is a provision of the Attorney General's Model Rules on Public Records addressing this very topic:

"An agency can, of course, provide the records sooner than five business days. Providing the 'fullest assistance' [required by RCW 42.56.100] to a requestor would mean providing a readily available record as soon as possible. For example, an agency might routinely prepare a premeeting packet of documents three days in advance of a city council meeting. The packet is readily available so the agency should provide it to a requestor on the same day of the request so he or she can have it for the council meeting."

WAC 44-14-04004(1).

Friday, April 3, 2009

Free Speech Wins in Open Meetings

This story from The (Pullman) Boomerang describes how the mayor of Palouse City would not allow public comment on a certain topic during open public meetings. Then the Attorney General's Office said in essence: "Nope. There's a little thing called the First Amendment." The Mayor backed down.

This blog covers open government, which usually means access to public records, open meetings, and court proceedings. But if you can't speak during a public meeting, what's the point of access to it?

Mason County Must Pay $145,000 in Public Records Case

This story in The Olympian describes a recent court ruling against Mason County for not providing public records. The requestor, Harold Carey, made public records requests by email. The County doesn't like Carey and put his email address on its spam list and then claimed it never "received" his records requests.

The judge assessed a (first-ever, to our knowledge) $100 per day penalty against the County. When the other penalties, costs, and attorney's fees are added up, Mason County will end up paying Carey about $145,000.

NOTE: Allied Law Group represented Carey in the case. Allied attorney Chris Roslaniec is quoted extensively in the story.