Inside Opinion

What's on the minds of Tacoma News Tribune editorial writers

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Tag: Public Records Act

Feb.
27th

Don’t chip away at public disclosure

This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.

For public officials, laws requiring government transparency can be a royal pain. We get that.

Those laws mean they have to publicize meetings and allow in citizens who might be quarrelsome or reporters who might ask uncomfortable questions.

And those laws mean they have to respond to citizens and media representatives requesting public records – even requests that might be time-consuming or seem unreasonable.

But open government laws are on the books for a reason: Read more »

Jan.
31st

Open government needs a vigilant champion

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

When it comes to being as open with citizens as required by state law, government doesn’t always get it right.

One thing it is doing right: employing a person whose sole job is to increase openness whenever possible. That’s the open-government ombudsman in the state Attorney General’s Office, a post created in 2005 by former Attorney General Rob McKenna and held since 2007 by Tim Ford.

In 2008, the position was a casualty of budget cuts and became part time. New Attorney General Bob Ferguson ought to preserve it and return it to full-time status as soon as feasible.
Read more »

Sep.
23rd

A privilege mysteriously absent from the state constitution

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

The Olympia-based Freedom Foundation is forcing an issue that needs to be forced: whether a governor can conceal documents by invoking an unwritten executive privilege that overrides the state’s Public Records Act.

The Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank, is suing Gov. Chris Gregoire to get six records of her office’s internal discussions about medical marijuana, the Alaskan Way Viaduct and salmon recovery efforts in the Columbia River Basin. The state Supreme Court heard the arguments last week.

Her attorneys say a governor needs “elbow room” to discuss sensitive questions with her staff with an assurance of privacy.

That’s a respectable argument – one that should be made to the Legislature. But Gregoire claims the Washington Constitution gives her power to withhold such internal documents – despite the constitution’s failure to mention this privilege.

Her argument largely relies on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recognition that the nation’s president possesses a “qualified privilege” to withhold certain records. We think the analogy between the governor and president is specious.

In Washington, executive authority is splintered into nine different offices; we elect an independent secretary of state and treasurer, for example. Our governorship is a pale shadow of the presidency. And unlike the president, the governor guards no state secrets.

The lack of an explicit executive privilege in the Washington Constitution is not a mere oversight. The constitution explicitly recognizes a corresponding privilege for legislators. The authors were aware of the issue and presumably knew what they were doing when they didn’t extend the same power to the governor.
Read more »

June
24th

A partial victory for disclosure in the R-71 case

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

One legal skirmish has yet to be fought, but Washington won the major battle over its Public Records Act on Thursday.

With a crushing 8-1 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that there is no sweeping constitutional right to sign petitions in anonymity. The decision doesn’t force the release of the signatures that put Referendum 71 one the ballot last November – that’s the unfought skirmish – but it repudiates a claim that could have sealed all petitions on all issues, in Washington and everywhere else citizens enjoy the right to initiative and referendum.

This lawsuit was brought by opponents of last year’s “everything but marriage” domestic partnership law, who launched a petition drive to reverse the measure at the polls. They have asked the courts to prevent the Secretary of State’s Office from releasing the identities of Washingtonians who signed the petition, arguing that disclosure would put the signers at risk of harassment from gay-rights advocates.

It didn’t help that a few gay-rights advocates actually did threaten identified signers with “uncomfortable conversations,” nor that others reportedly threatened the initiative’s sponsors with physical harm.

But the stakes in the lawsuit were far bigger than R-71. It challenged the constitutionality of any disclosure on the grounds that petition signers had a First Amendment right to anonymous political expression.
Read more »

June
8th

A court’s baffling suppression of police reports

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Huh?

That’s how we reacted a few weeks ago to a judge’s order to block the release of law enforcement reports about the shooting of four Lakewood police officers last November. Such documents are routinely released – for very good reason – once officers have caught the suspects and wrapped up the investigation.

Susan Serko of the Pierce County Superior Court got the law wrong May 20 when she sided with defense lawyers representing the seven people accused of assisting cop-killer Maurice Clemmons. The attorneys persuaded her to stop the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department from releasing more than 2,000 pages relating to the cases, arguing that publicizing the information might deny their clients a fair trial.

This week, Serko delivered a double-huh decision. Admitting that she’d misunderstood key points of law in her original ruling, she still reaffirmed the ruling. The Seattle Times, which – joined by The News Tribune – was trying to pry the reports loose, plans to appeal. Serko’s decision cries out for reversal.

The Washington Supreme Court has already upheld pretrial disclosure of investigative documents – in a 1999 decision that overrode an earlier ruling Serko inexplicably relied on. But let’s leave precedents aside and consider what’s at stake for justice in general.
Read more »

March
6th

State government clings to double standard

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

Is it any wonder that city and county officials clamor for relief from open meetings and records laws when they see their counterparts in state government behave as they do?

State officials profess a belief in public disclosure. They’re just not sure it always applies to them.

Lawmakers in particular hold themselves apart from the state’s sunshine laws. They caucus in secret for any reason and insist that their correspondence is somehow constitutionally protected from public dissemination.

They also apparently reserve the right to skip public process in the interests of expediency.

Read more »

Jan.
26th

Don’t raid public records fines

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

Lawmakers, under cover of helping the state archives, are seeking to shift the costs of illegal government secrecy to whistleblowers.

Identical bills in the House and Senate propose to redirect fines now paid to private citizens who prove public agencies erred in withholding records. The fines would go instead to the state archives account.

Requesters could plead with the court to reimburse their attorney fees and costs. But judges would not be bound to award those expenses as they are now.

The bills are certainly not the only pieces of legislation aimed at appeasing local governments’ clamor for relief from the burden of doing the public’s business in public.

But what Rep. Dennis Flannigan of Tacoma and Darlene Fairley of Lake Forest Park have dreamed up in House Bill 2910 and Senate Bill 6408 is especially egregious. Their legislation would eliminate much of the incentive agencies have to comply with the state’s open records law.

Read more »

Jan.
26th

Coming Wednesday: Public records fines

Here’s what we’re working on:

We love the state archives as much as anyone, but trying to fund it with public records fines is an insult to the very premise behind preservation of government documents. This legislation would make it far more difficult for citizens to get access to information that public agencies don’t want them to see.