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Newspapers find inconsistency in access to state public records

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         WASHINGTON         Freedom of Information         Nov 6, 2001    

Newspapers find inconsistency in access to state public records

  • Representatives from 25 newspapers filed public records requests simultaneously on June 21, in an attempt to survey how well state agencies complied with requests for public information made by the general public.

When journalist Paula Lavigne Sullivan helped with an assessment of how well government agencies in Washington comply with public records requests, she found that officials often concealed documents from the public that are accessible to reporters.

“Some people were helpful,” Sullivan said. “With others, it was like you were asking for their firstborn child. They took a proprietary attitude toward their records, and some were antagonistic.”

Results from an audit, conducted on June 21 by editors from 25 newspapers and the Associated Press, were compiled in “Washington: Your Right to Know,” a package of stories about how public officials responded to requests from people seeking government records. The audit included requests in every county for records, ranging from crime reports to school contracts to restaurant inspections.

The report, released in October, said that “while most agencies don’t charge anything for their records, some agencies are making people pay much more than state law allows.”

It was published as a three-day package of stories distributed to newspapers by the AP wire and also on an Internet Web site, www.openwashington.com.

“Our goal was to try to produce stories that are useful to average people,” said Dale Leach, AP bureau chief in Seattle who helped organize the audit. “As a result, we wanted to seek documents we thought everyone would have reasons to ask for.”

The effort was the first of its kind in Washington, although numerous other states have conducted similar inquiries.

“We wanted as clear a reading as we could get about how an average person would be treated in whichever agency they approached,” Leach said.

According to Laurie Williams, assistant managing editor of the Tri-Cities Herald who helped organize the project, the newspapers wanted to see what records the general public could get. The papers sent staffers who would not be recognized as reporters, so they would be treated like the public.

“An unprecedented statewide audit of local public agencies found dozens of government employees who violated the state’s public records disclosure law by withholding documents that the law says they must release,” Sullivan wrote in a story about the project. “Audit results found agencies withheld documents often enough that Washington residents can’t be certain that local government will give them information to which they’re entitled.”

In addition to demanding the names of records seekers and their reasons for requesting documents, agencies charged widely fluctuating prices for copying and “research” fees, practices that are prohibited by Washington’s Public Records Act, the report concludes.

The release of police incident reports was also inconsistent, the audit found, possibly due to vaguely worded exemptions in the Public Records Act and conflicting rulings from the state Supreme Court.

County assessors’ offices were the only audited agencies that always released information, she wrote.

“Auditors found no patterns in records denials among large or small agencies or parts of the state,” Sullivan wrote. “But the findings did show different types of agencies handle records requests in different ways. Agencies that are supposed to enforce the law were the ones who most often disregarded it.”

GR

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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