No teeth. No attention. That's the problem with Washington state's open-records laws. How else to explain so many examples of government...
No teeth. No attention.
That’s the problem with Washington state’s open-records laws. How else to explain so many examples of government officials disrespecting the people’s right to know? Why else has there been this troubling rash of “Gee, we didn’t know” defenses?
The most outrageous example is the case of Armen Yousoufian. He’s the Seattle business and real-estate entrepreneur embroiled in a nearly nine-year battle to make King County accountable for stonewalling his request for documents relating to studies of the economic impacts of sports teams.
The county’s defense? Staffers couldn’t understand what he wanted for, gosh, the longest time.
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Yousoufian won in court, but the trial judge ordered an award eclipsed by his attorney fees. Last year, the state Supreme Court upped the award to $425,000, which covered fees but carried little penalty for what the courts ruled was the county’s “lack of good faith.” He’s appealing for a higher fine to establish a precedent with enforcement teeth.
The case clearly discourages citizens without Yousoufian’s personal resources from taking on government secret-keepers.
The trial judge’s impulse to give government a break on the fine is understandable. A large fine punishes taxpayers innocent of law-breaking, not the public officials who withheld the documents.
It’s a crime!
Well, it’s not, technically. But maybe it should be.
A Kitsap County official gave to an outside economic-development agency a document relating to a proposed NASCAR track so he would not have to disclose it, if requested. Fifteen county officials actually signed confidentiality agreements.
Though the worker clearly violated the law, the state’s chief criminal prosecutor did not press charges — the Public Disclosure Act has no criminal penalties.
Not all public officials are so cavalier. After all, a Kitsap County commissioner blew the whistle on the county’s misbehavior.
You can bet, though, if officials were held personally responsible for violating public disclosure laws, they would be much more apt to follow them.
State Rep. Toby Nixon, R-Kirkland, is considering several public-disclosure-related bills, but one I especially like would do just that.
“The fines are so low, they’re considered the cost of doing business,” said Nixon, a member of the noble-minded Washington Coalition for Open Government. “There has to be some pain involved.”
Other states value public access enough to have taken that step. Idaho permits a civil fine of $1,000 to be taken out of the personal wallets of public officials.
Texas takes a dimmer view. An official who fails to comply with a legitimate records request could be found guilty of official misconduct, a misdemeanor punishable with up to six months in jail, a $1,000 fine or both.
Now that’s what I’m talking about!
Unfortunately, government stonewalling too often prevents citizens from maintaining control they declared they wanted when they overwhelmingly approved the 1972 law by initiative.
Time marches past important decision points. Take Yousoufian. He wanted his documents to shed light on the economic impact of stadiums before the June 1997 vote on the football stadium. He got them in 2001.
And Seattle surely could have been spared the disastrous Seattle Monorail Project if public officials had complied with an opposition group’s request for financial documents before the November 2002 election. Legal wrangling kept the documents hidden, and voters barely passed the vehicle-excise tax.
(The agency prevailed on appeal. The Legislature fixed one aspect of the disturbing Supreme Court ruling last year, but another aspect, granting agencies too liberal an attorney-client privilege, remains a problem.)
Though the monorail project now is in shutdown mode because of its erroneous projections, Seattle vehicle owners continue to pay about $1 million a week to pay off its obligations.
If only Seattle voters knew then what they know now.
Washington’s public-disclosure law is a generally good one. What’s missing are more specific incentives for public officials to know the law and follow it. Put them personally on the hook.
Kate Riley’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org