Sunday, February 22, 2009

Uh Oh, Better Get Those Public Disclosure Requests In Soon

This article, "Cloud hangs over 'sunshine' law" was in today's Times. Apparently the state legislature is considering a number of bills to limit access to public records because of the belief that a few people (inmates and a few public citizens) abuse the right. Some of the bills like the ones shielding disclosure of public employees birth dates and addresses seem fair to me. There is also the issue of the cost of having an employee go through a document and redact items.

However, if you start charging more (one bill has the cost go from 15 cents a page to 25 cents a page) or allow the government to charge you for an entire document (even if you only want one page), then it seems to be a problem. Another bill would allow agencies to get a court injunction against people who make record requests with the intent of "annoying, tormenting or terrorizing" government employees. Those terms would have to be spelled out precisely or any government employee could claim them.

(I remember trying to save my local fire station and wanting information on how much money the City was spending on the city-run tv station. The employee I dealt with got very impatient with my questions and told me I was bothering him. I told him that Mayor Nickels had told me if I could find the money for the fire station, our neighborhood could keep it. The only way to find that money was to ask where money was going elsewhere in the budget. Yes, my neighborhood still has its fire station but I certainly take only a small portion of credit. The moral is you have to be the squeaky wheel if you are to get anywhere.)

From the article:

"To make their case, officials offer examples such as convicted arsonist Allan Parmelee, who has filed more than 800 public-disclosure requests from behind bars.

But other requests cited by government agencies as onerous appear to come from people using the records law as it was intended — to hold government accountable. They include a woman fighting the Everett School District's treatment of her autistic son and a businessman in Prosser who says he's investigating corruption."

"Any requester who was just a little too persistent would have an injunction filed against them," said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit supported by media organizations including The Seattle Times.

"Agencies that don't want to disclose the information because they know they've done something wrong or it's politically embarrassing — they absolutely will use it."

I absolutely agree with the last sentence. These bills would certainly hinder me from trying to access information that the district has in its possession. The fact that you have to file a public disclosure request for basic information like a BEX budget seems ridiculous anyway. Isn't a budget the most basic document any public entity can have? But the district does, on a regular basis, tell people to file with the Legal department.

You sometimes have to ask, in a broad manner, for information. If you get too specific, the entity will try to shield information by saying you asked for Project XJ and the real name is Project X.

From the article:

"Everett's other major records fight involves a mother challenging the school district's refusal to place her son, who has autism, in a regular classroom at their neighborhood middle school. The district said the boy should be in a special-education classroom.

Jessica Olson said she asked for documents to prove officials were making decisions about the placement of her son, Tommy, and other special-education students — without consulting parents as required by law.

She filed a records request to review all e-mails and notes sent and received over a two-week period in 2007 by nine district officials, including the superintendent.

After Olson refused to narrow her request, the district responded that it would take six to nine months to produce all the records, then demanded she pay $1,275 to look at the documents, according to a lawsuit Olson filed.

State law prohibits agencies from charging fees to inspect public records. (They can charge 15 cents a page for photocopies.)

School districts are supporting a bill that could make such inspection fees legal."

This woman was fighting for her child's right to a fair education. She had a right to know if district officials were following the law.

If there were an inspection fee (meaning you come down to the headquarters and review the documents with the possibility of copying what you wanted rather than requesting an entire document be copied), it could stop many folks. I could support a one-time fee like $5.00 but not a per page fee to read a document.

This could have a chilling effect on many because of a few. If there are new laws, they should be narrowly tailored.

5 comments:

zb said...

"I could support a one-time fee like $5.00 but not a per page fee to read a document."

The problem with this is the additional requirement public officials (including schools & medical personnel) have to protect the privacy of other individuals & employees.

In the email correspondence you've just described (especially a historical one), it's quite possible that more than one student was discussed in some or many of the emails. Therefore, each email would need to be read and considered by a responsible official before being released to redact information that cannot be released to a private individual. Document inspection, before information can be released can be quite complicated and time consuming.

The price cited here for that inspection seems like it might indeed be the actual cost, and not a merely a means of inhibiting the request. Five dollars wouldn't come anywhere near covering it. Which budget should the cost for inspection come from?

Melissa Westbrook said...

What's the price for transparency and accountability?

zb said...

"What's the price for transparency and accountability?"

Well, if there's a cost, than it's just one more priority we have to balance. A classroom teacher? a 10% increase in class size? What are we willing to trade off? (and, of course, we don't have to stay within the educational system to find the sacrifice). The point is that releasing public records costs money that has to come from somewhere. The cost excuse *can* be used to draw the shades, merely as an excuse, or it can honestly be a cost that takes away from other priorities, if the district needs to balance the requests within their own budgets.

Many entities that are subject to frequent FIA requests now hire an individual to do the work (say spending 1% of the budget of a 10M organization).

sp said...

Here's just one example of lack of District transparency leading to the District's needlessly wasting their own resources:

Last fall, parents were told at a Student Learning Committee meeting that the High School Steering Committee would be forming a subcommittee called "Instructional Minutes" to review the current requirements & district policy for high school credit hours for graduation. Shannon McMinimee was the staff person charged with leading the subcommittee.

Since the general public is not allowed to attend any High School Steering Committee meetings, a parent asked Shannon for the findings & recommendations generated from that subcommittee. Shannon wrote back that a Public Records Act request should be submitted. This was duly submitted. The response back from the District's Public Records office was that the subcommittee had never met, so there were no meeting minutes, no findings, and no recommendations!

Now, wouldn't you think that it would have been a lot easier if the parent was just told that fact in the first place, and not sent on a empty goose chase? These are our tax dollars spent here. And the bigger question is what is there to hide that findings & recommendations are not readily available to the public, in order that we might have some awareness and input into the subject being discussed?

(By the way- there still hasn't been any updates available yet on this subcommittee's progress).

Melissa Westbrook said...

Good point, SP. Put meeting minutes online; they are public documents.