Papers Find Spotty Compliance On Sunshine Law

By: Dale Leach, Associated Press Writer

(AP) Nearly 30 years after Washington voters approved an initiative keeping public records open to the public, compliance with the law is spotty, according to a statewide audit by more than two dozen newspapers.

The audit by reporters and other staffers from 20 daily and five weekly newspapers in Washington and northern Idaho was the first of its kind to examine compliance with the state’s 1972 Public Records Act. Results were distributed by The Associated Press and published this week.

The newspaper employees requested lists of registered sex offenders, reports on crime, home values, school superintendent contracts, and restaurant inspections from agencies in all 39 Washington counties. They did not identify themselves as journalists unless specifically asked.

“The goal was to determine how non-journalists would be treated if they were to make those requests,” said Laurie Williams, city editor of the Tri-City Herald in Kennewick, Wash., and coordinator of the project.

Crime reports proved the most troublesome. Newspapers asking for information about a recent property crime were turned down 55% of the time.

Sheriff’s departments refused about 16% of the requests to produce lists of sex offenders. Health departments denied about 8% of the requests for restaurant inspections, while school districts refused to release superintendent contracts about 12% of the time.

County assessor’s offices were the only audited agencies that always released information. Home assessments are frequently requested by real estate agents and others.

In almost one of every five cases in the audit, people requesting information were asked why they wanted it — a question outside the bounds of state law — before their requests were even considered. Eight percent of the auditors described the public employees they encountered as “antagonistic.”

State Attorney General Christine Gregoire said Monday that she was surprised by the findings. “It’s a long ways to go here to make sure that we’ve got the right attitude that we’re doing the public’s work,” she said.

The law defines a public record as any document prepared, owned, used, or kept by a state or local agency. Such records are presumed to be public, unless specifically exempted from disclosure by law.

Many police and sheriff’s departments asked auditors why they wanted information about crimes and how they planned to use it. Some were told they had to be involved in the crime to see the report.

That is simply not true, said media lawyer Michele Earl-Hubbard. Law enforcement officials can only withhold information that, if released, would “severely hamper” the investigation or violate a victim’s right to privacy, she said.

“Crimes are things the public has the right and the need to know about … so people can protect themselves from becoming victims,” she said.

Bonnie and Dan Olsen hired a lawyer when King County officials denied them a document relating to permits for a 45-acre residential development going up near their home. The couple won their more than two-year battle in June, when the state Court of Appeals ruled the county violated public disclosure laws by refusing to release the records.

“You know, we need some sunshine in there to try to keep them honest. We can’t get in there and be in the office and be in the meetings, but we can at least be reading the documents,” Bonnie Olsen said. “If they’re not ashamed of it, why conceal it?”

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