Prospects grim for open access to state's public records
By The Associated Press
OLYMPIA, Wash. A statewide audit of local governments' compliance with Washington's public-records law found widespread violations last year, but don't expect the Legislature to toughen the law in the upcoming session.
In fact, look for the aftershocks of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to lessen access to public records.
"If the best we can do is hold the line and not allow any further degradation of the public- records law, we'll be doing well," said Diana Kramer, executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.
The root of the problems exposed by the audit, one lawmaker said, lies not in the law itself but in local bureaucrats' ignorance.
"What the project found is that the existing law is not being complied with," said state Sen. Georgia Gardner, D-Blaine, chairwoman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee.
"What we need to do is have an education process or something, so that we're actually complying with the law. I don't see that there's any legislation that's appropriate."
Under the current law, there is no state agency that enforces the public-records law. Those denied access to records must go to court.
"The problem is that you have to bring that lawsuit. And for a citizen that's hard to do," said Fred Olson, a spokesman for Attorney General Christine Gregoire. "Even for a small newspaper, or a large newspaper, it costs money."
Those who sue and win can recoup legal costs, but losing carries the risk of a hefty tab.
However, Olson agreed with Gardner's analysis that most violations stem from ignorance.
Although the Attorney General's Office offers training for local officials and publishes a handbook on the issue, Gregoire has no plans to toughen the law, Olson said.
Last summer, 26 news organizations undertook an audit of local governments' compliance with the law, which guarantees access to all public records not specifically exempted.
Reporters and others fanned out across the state, posing as ordinary citizens seeking public information on sex offenders, crime reports, home values, school superintendent contracts and restaurant inspections in all 39 Washington counties.
In dozens of cases, agencies refused to give out information to which any member of the public was entitled.
Police and sheriff's departments denied requests for information about property crimes more than half the time. Requests for lists of sex offenders, results of restaurant inspections and superintendents' contracts were also rebuffed, although less often.
Only county auditors, who deal with requests about home values daily, gave out information freely in all cases.
That finding has Gardner and other lawmakers inclined to pass on a review of the law. Gardner suggested Gregoire might require local governments to post posters detailing employees' obligations under the law.
Meanwhile, the Sept. 11 attacks have prompted Gregoire and Gov. Gary Locke to seek a new exemption from the law.
The state could lock up records related to how the state might "prevent, mitigate or respond to criminal terrorist acts" if disclosing the information could threaten public safety.
The proposed exemption extends to terrorism response plans, along with databases of goods or materials assembled to prepare for attacks.
Critics call it overkill that might stymie reporters or members of the public interested in seeing how the government spends millions of dollars on domestic security improvements over the next few years, said Rowland Thompson, who lobbies the Legislature on behalf of daily newspapers around the state.
Fred Hellberg, Locke's executive policy adviser, said the new exemption was carefully crafted to protect specific records that have raised concerns since Sept. 11.
Unlike the president, Washington's governor cannot simply declare information classified. All the state's records are presumed public unless the law exempts them specifically.
"This sort of opened up a whole new area of potential attacks," Hellberg said.
The idea is to prevent access to information that could be used to sabotage vital parts of the state's infrastructure, such as the communications systems of police and rescue workers.
Information about the cost and purchase of goods and services will remain public, Hellberg said.
Washington officials are also concerned about reassuring federal officials that sensitive information won't be disclosed if shared with the state.
"It's important that the state offer confidence to the federal authorities so they will share information about potential terrorist threats with us," Hellberg said.
One of the bill's first stops will be the new House Select Committee on Community Security. Chairman Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, promises to give it close scrutiny.
"Our intent is not to grant vast new exemptions from disclosure," said Hurst. "We don't want a broad principle that causes a lot of heartache for civil libertarians, the media and the public at large."
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