As discussed on this page Monday, the mayor of Langley on Whidbey Island raised eyebrows by billing a local newspaper for the city attorney’s time talking to a reporter.
By Monday, Mayor Tim Callison had rescinded the bill and said it was a poorly worded attempt to engage the South Whidbey Record in a discussion about city resources.
More troubling than the snarky “please remit,” were related statements by Callison and the city attorney that appear to block access to potential documents regarding a proposal before the Langley City Council seeking sanctuary city status for the city of just over 1,000. Both Callison and attorney Mile Kenyon, who works on contract with the city, claimed attorney-client privilege in denying a Record reporter’s request for the attorney’s recommendations to the council. But nothing about the policy issue appears to fit allowed exemptions to the state’s Public Records Act.
If Callison and other cities are concerned about the media’s demands on city resources, they all need to consider the outcomes of violation of state and federal “sunshine” laws in regard to public access to government documents and meetings.
And it’s a good reminder during Sunshine Week, which continues through Saturday and celebrates Freedom of Information and access laws.
The courts have a record of support for such laws, as the city of Tacoma saw last week.
Tacoma was fined $50,000, the maximum fine allowed, and ordered to pay legal fees after a Pierce County Superior Court judge ruled that the city had violated the state’s Public Records Act. Tacoma officials, at the request of the FBI, had almost completely redacted — blacked out — a document related to the city’s request for a Stingray device. The device mimics a cellphone tower and allows police to track a suspect via their cellphone, but some privacy advocates have raised concerns because it also sweeps up data from the phones of others not under investigation.
Of the six-page nondisclosure document, only two brief introductory paragraphs and the signature page were not blacked out. The judge ruled that the public’s right to the document outweighed the city’s desire to maintain a good relationship with the FBI.
There are challenges in terms of finances and staff time for governments, particularly small towns like Langley, in meeting the requirements of sunshine laws, but state lawmakers are completing work on two bills that should help them.
Both bills, HB 1594 and HB 1595, have passed the House and are scheduled for public hearings before a Senate committee today. Both have seen amendments since first proposed, but key provisions remain.
HB 1594 offers remedies to help governments fulfill requests, setting up a consultation program at the state Attorney General’s Office to assist governments with best practices for managing public records; a training program on records management; a grant program, supported by a $1 surcharge on county recorded documents, that would help local governments improve their information technology systems; and a study regarding the establishment of a statewide internet portal for public records.
HB 1595 establishes a modest fee schedule for public records, either a flat $2 fee per request or 15 cents per page for printed copies of electronic records, 10 cents a page for printed records scanned into an electronic document or 5 cents for each four electronic attachments. The bill also bars blanket requests for all of an agency’s public records, but allows for request for all documents related to a specific issue or keyword.
Assuming each passes the House and are signed by the governor, both bills should help local governments and state agencies fulfill access requests by the public. But the willingness of government officials and an understanding of what sunshine laws require also are necessary.
It wasn’t the cost of fulfilling the request for the Stingray document that got Tacoma in trouble; it was the city’s refusal to release the document for more than a year.
Simply, these documents don’t belong to the agencies or governments that hold them; they belong to the public.