Open Records Act: serious work for all parties

  • By Scott North
  • Saturday, October 1, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

Preserving law and order is one of the most important, and expensive, functions of local government. Roughly $7 of every $10 spent on the day-to-day operations for Snohomish County, for example, goes toward cops, courts and the bare-knuckle business of putting crooks behind bars.

Law enforcem

ent also is one of the most-secretive functions of government. For good reasons, many records related to active police investigations are exempt from public disclosure. Imagine a world where an organized crime figure could identify possible witnesses, or even snitches, simply by filing a records request at the local cop shop.

But what about when police investigate themselves for possible misconduct? And how, if such work is off limits, can you monitor whether the cops are taking unsolved cases seriously?

Our news partner, KIRO-TV, recently documented how Renton police engaged in what was described as a “shredding party,” destroying records related to some unflattering internal investigations. It apparently was legal, but the timing was suspect as the records were linked to a controversy poised to go public.

About the time KIRO was reporting on its case, the state Court of Appeals was ruling on another case out of Seattle. The decision is noteworthy because it may control how disputes over other police records will be resolved. The court affirmed that in-progress case files can remain secret, that an investigation isn’t over just because the cops have stopped conducting interviews and that government has no duty to tell people when documents related to their inquiry become available.

“Agencies are required to respond to requests in a timely fashion by disclosing all nonexempt documents. Nothing in the language or history of the (public records) statute indicates the Legislature intended to impose on agencies an endless monitoring of old requests, or to require updated responses indefinitely to people who may have long since lost interest,” said the ruling, written by appeals court Judge Anne Ellington.

In other words, the court expects that somebody interested in keeping track of government is willing to work. That anticipates repeated requests over time for responsive records. It also means that government workers who tally the number of requests from pesky folks and think the statistic a measure of their suffering will have to find something else to whimper about. It is like grumbling about the speed limit — law is the law.

Last week, the state Supreme Court made clear in a Spokane County case that government agencies are required to take public records requests seriously, even poring over the hard drives of abandoned computers in some instances. If not, they can face enhanced civil penalties.

Writing for the majority, Justice Charles Johnson quoted from another case, now 17 years past, that the public record act “stands for the proposition that ‘full access to information concerning the conduct of government on every level must be assured as a fundamental and necessary precondition to the sound governance of a free society.'”

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