Like most business managers, newspaper editors comb through their budgets each year, looking for ways to trim operating expenses.
This exercise in frugality usually leaves a couple of modest items untouched: copying costs and legal fees.
Important stories lead our newspaper to request public records — and footing the bill for lawyers and agency charges for photocopies and computer disks comes with the territory.
Our state’s Constitution and laws express an ideal that public business — with a limited number of exemptions — should be conducted in full view of the public.
This right of access belongs to all the people of the state, not just news organizations. But citizens may not feel welcome or well-equipped to pry records loose from the system. (And few of them have even modest budgets for copying costs and legal fees.)
News reporters, on the other hand, are old hands at using our state’s Public Disclosure Act.
For instance, Herald reporter and editor Scott North refers to the concrete safety divider on I-5 north of Marysville as “the wall that public records built.”
In 2005, Herald reporters began investigating a series of horrible crashes that occurred when speeding cars crossed the interstate median. Analyzing raw data from 854 accidents, North said, they found that existing cable barriers had not stopped cross-over crashes as effectively as the state Department of Transportation had publicly asserted.
Where did the data come from? Public records requests.
Once Herald reporters published their stories, the state agreed with the findings and the governor ordered cable barriers replaced with a concrete divider. Fatal cross-over crashes have stopped along that stretch of interstate.
Recently, judges, lawyers and journalists hosted a panel discussion about obstacles that keep court records beyond the reach of citizens. One participant, reporter Sean Robinson of the Tacoma News-Tribune, described an experiment he conducted in local courts in Pierce County.
Without identifying himself as a journalist, Robinson walked into court offices and asked to look at files on specific cases — records that, under law, were open to the public. Time and time again, employees refused. Are you a lawyer, they asked? Are you a party to the case? You’ll need to get the boss’s approval, they insisted.
Robinson said he doesn’t think court staffers mean to violatie state law — they just aren’t familiar with what the law requires. Or they are fearful: “They just don’t want to screw up.”
They were accustomed to dealing with officials and insiders, even reporters. But they balked at accommodating an ordinary citizen.
North and Robinson are both believers when it comes to individuals employing the state’s Public Disclosure Act and other open government laws. But both warn that well-intentioned people can trip up when making requests.
“The state’s public records law is a tool, and like all tools, it is best used for the job for which it was intended,” North counsels. “The law exists to provide you access to information. That is different from providing answers to every question.”
North’s views are echoed in Robinson’s tips for citizens requesting records:
1. Be polite. Politeness is overlooked and undervalued.
2. Be specific. Know what you’re looking for.
“Asking for last week’s meeting minutes is simple. Asking for ‘all documents related to the budget since 2005’ is a bit crazy. And asking a question — ‘Why are my property taxes so high?’ — is not a request for public records.”
3. Submit requests in writing. Build a paper trail. Be professional.
4. If you are denied, don’t give up. Ask why. Ask for the denial in writing. Agencies must give you a reason for saying no.
North reminds people that the law requires an agency to promptly acknowledge a request for records, but “people often are surprised that getting records can take a long time.”
He says folks interested in getting public records should do a little homework before making their requests. He recommends the state attorney general’s on-line manual, www.atg.wa.gov/OpenGovernment/InternetManual.aspx.
The Washington Coalition for Open Government, http://www.washingtoncog.org/index.php, also provides resources for individuals interested in open government issues and public records request.
The Sunday column, Here at The Herald, provides an inside peek at the newspaper. Is there something you would like to know? Email executive editor Neal Pattison at firstname.lastname@example.org.