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R-71 news breaks from strange directions

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Sep. 20, 2009 at 7:27 am with 3 Comments »
September 21, 2009 1:23 pm

Tim Eyman is known more for initiatives than journalism, but he actually broke some news last Wednesday that left the secretary of state’s office embarrassed.

Here’s a link to a Kitsap Sun blog that contains both Eyman’s blast and a rebuttal from Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

Strip away Eyman’s off-putting blustering about fraud and lying, and he’s essentially right: The secretary of state’s office released no information about who signed petitions until 2006, when the practice began with one of Eyman’s initiatives. Read today’s editorial.

The reasons are innocent: State archivists’ resistance to storing records (such as petitions) in easily shared digital formats, and the fact that Sam Reed’s predecessors believed that the identities of initiative signers was confidential. But the fact remains that release is a very recent phenomenon.

We have a strong bias toward open public records, hence our arguments that the public ought to have access to petitions and most other government documents. Factor that bias in when you read our commentary. We’re also vehemently opposed to anyone harassing petition-signers, but we think that’s a problem to be dealt with in other ways – such as prosecution and public shaming.

Eyman buttressed his case Friday afternoon when he produced this sympathic report by Erik Smith, a former reporter for the Tri-City Herald. Erik talked at length to Don Whiting, assistant secretary of state under Reed’s immediate predecessor, Ralph Munro.

Smith also dug up what appears to be a forgotten Thurston County court precedent AGAINST releasing petitions, at least without the signers’ names blacked out.

A fascinating aspect of this is that Smith has been doing his reporting on a Web site called HealthCare Today. Not a platform you’d normally turn to for news and spin on a legal dispute over petitions. But with traditional newsrooms skinnied down so much, you take news where you can find it. Even from Tim Eyman, heaven help us.

Leave a comment Comments → 3
  1. jimkingjr says:

    So a judge ruled in favor of privacy, and an AGO says other.

    Funny, but it is the Thurston County court ruling that is law. Not the AGO.

    It is a shame- and should be an embarrasment- that the mainstream media did not dig and find these truths before buying into Reed and McKenna’s hyperbole and misrepresentations. Maybe if you had researched before jumping, you might have found it worth defending the citizens First Amendment rights.

    Will the News Tribune at least be courageous enough to rethink its opinions- and restore some of its credibility by doing so?

  2. Erik Smith misreads RCW 42.56.210(1) the same way that Eyman does. 42.56.210(1) does NOT create an exemption. It says that exemptions DO NOT APPLY if the exempt portion can be redacted. That’s ALL it says. Both Smith and Eyman ignore 42.56.050’s definition of privacy – and the clear fact that the information on initiative and referendum petitions cannot fit within that definition.

    Smith is also wrong in saying “Elections Officials Get To Decide”. That’s baloney. There is NO exemption for the content of petitions; the decision has been made by the legislature, and is not a matter of discretion on the part of the Secretary of State. The fact that Don Whiting and Ralph Munro also misunderstood and misapplied the law does not create a binding precedent.

    Smith also trots out another twisted – and wrong – interpretation of the PRA. He says “The state has used the exemption in the past when privacy is a concern – for instance, it doesn’t disclose names and addresses of law enforcement officials when prisoners request them.” By “the exemption”, presumably he’s referring to RCW 42.56.210(1), but that doesn’t create any exemption of any kind. In fact, there is NO exemption for the “names” of “law enforcement officials”. Anyone who asks for a list of the names of all the employees of a law enforcement agency will receive it (although since SB 5130 passed in the 2009 session, agencies can seek to enjoin incarcerated felons from receiving records – but that’s not an exemption, either). As for addresses, there is an exemption for release of home addresses of law enforcement officials if you ask for the content of their personnel files – RCW 42.56.250(3) – a real exemption which, incidentally, applies to all other government employees as well (not just law enforcement). There is NO exemption that prevents the disclosure of addresses of law enforcement officials that appear in the voter file, or campaign contribution records, or tax records, or property records, or permitting records, or any other kind of records, including PETITIONS. Nothing stops anyone from getting the names of government employees, and then looking up their addresses in sources other than their employee files. Attempts to exempt employee addresses from disclosure in all of these other types of records have so far failed – and no such exemption exists. Smith is just plain wrong.

    It’s clear that Tim Eyman doesn’t like Sam Reed, and now Erik Smith is piling on. But in this case, the criticism is misplaced. Sam Reed is obeying the law as written, and not abusing his discretion in any way. If Eyman and Smith don’t like the law, they should go to the legislature or run an initiative and change it.

    Toby Nixon
    President, Washington Coalition for Open Government

  3. jimkingjr says:

    Sorry, Toby- but a judge ruled otherwise many decades ago, and actual authors of I-276 disagree with you. You might look at the other statute, prohibiting observers from recording information during the verification process, as well. You, Sam, and Rob are so very wrong on this.

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