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Sunday, April 15, 2012

In defense of public-records requesters

By Laurie H. Rogers

"There are laws to protect the freedom of the press's speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press." ~Mark Twain
“If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” ~Malcolm X

It’s true; the media have the power to destroy. But their real job is to uphold truth, accountability and transparency; to inform the people; and to investigate and shine a light on wrongdoing.

Today’s media are struggling to remain afloat. Challenged by blogs and Web sites, and accused of shallowness and bias, traditional media are scrambling to remain relevant and to retain readership. Many have cut space and reporting staff and now depend heavily on wire reports. Basic principles of journalism have been ground into dust under the need to satisfy advertisers and allies. It’s become convenient for media to use “stories” already written by government agencies (including school districts) and corporations. In return, the agencies ask for favorable coverage, which they get.

Interrupting this symbiotic relationship are the citizens. We depend on the media to spend time and money looking into things that sometimes make the media’s allies and advertisers uncomfortable. But when the media refuse to investigate, they’re failing in their prime directives.

Over the last year, media response to multiple attacks on transparent government at state and federal levels was muted. As the Department of Justice argued to be able to lie about the existence of records, as the Department of Education ignored multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about its activities, as the Washington governor argued to be able to withhold records based on “executive privilege,” and as various legislators pushed to basically eliminate the Public Records Act in Washington State – our media outlets – champions of transparency and ethics in others – were virtually silent.

A leaner and more efficient government will not be the result of eliminating laws that promote a transparent or open government (sometimes known as “Sunshine Laws”). Secrecy corrupts, and corruption wants secrecy. The American government is to be “by the people” and “for the people.” Citizens have the inherent right and constitutional right to know what our government is doing. Without laws ensuring open government, we’re likely to wind up with a fascist government.

So far, Washington State has been a leader in open government. In 1972, voters passed Initiative 276, mandating that government agencies provide government records to the public when asked to do so. In 2005, this law was strengthened and encapsulated in the Public Records Act, RCW 42.56. According to the Attorney General, this law is based on three important principles:
  1. The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them.
  2. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.
  3. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.
Since the Public Records Act (PRA) was passed, many exemptions to the law have been added. And this year, there were multiple legislative efforts to pass bills that would have de facto eliminated the PRA for most citizens. As supposed defenders of the First Amendment, of transparent government and of the “little guy” – you’d think the media would be all over that. Instead, local media ignored most of those efforts and attacked citizens on some of the rest.

For example, board directors of Spokane Public Schools made it a 2012 Legislative Priority to de facto toss out the PRA by making it too expensive for most citizens. They asked Senator Lisa Brown to sponsor legislation that would charge citizens the costs of responding to requests for public records.

Senator Brown obliged by introducing SB 6576, which would have required that all school districts charge citizens for (whatever the districts claim are) personnel costs to research, compile and copy public records. But those employees already receive a salary, paid for by taxpayers. What sense would it make for citizens to pay that money again? This action seems spiteful and obstructive. Most private citizens can’t afford the costs associated with making a public records request. Senator Brown’s bill was introduced Feb. 1, with a public hearing Feb. 6, the day after Super Bowl Sunday. Her timing eliminated the ability of most citizens to attend. The bill didn’t pass this year, but a Spokane administrator said they might try again next year.

Also introduced this year were SB 6351 and companion bill HB 2677. Tucked into a bill that pertains to inmates, the language of these bills applies to all citizens. The bills would have allowed all public agencies to threaten the public with injunctions against records requests, to file for injunctions, to limit time spent on fulfilling requests, and to refuse to fulfill further requests from certain requesters.

Also introduced were SB 5062 and companion bill HB 1139. These bills would have removed penalties for the failure of a public agency to provide records, as long as the agency provided the missing records within 30 days of being notified that the records are missing. Requesters would have to KNOW which records were missing. These bills would have allowed public agencies to decline to provide pertinent records, betting that most citizens would not discover that records were missing.

Agencies claimed that they’re overwhelmed with requests or that they’re being targeted by abusive requesters with a vendetta. But a Spokane Public Schools administrator has publicly implied that two citizens who each filed a single request are abusive.

I, too, was implied to be abusive. For more than five years, I’ve done my best to find out what this district is doing with our dollars and our children. Local media seem disinclined to investigate the district, so if I am to be informed and accurate and to NOT spread misinformation, then I must obtain public records. At some point in 2011, it seemed that the district was redirecting all of my requests to Associate Superintendent Mark Anderson. Even a request for a simple report went through him. My polite questioning of this new policy was futile. Anderson told me: “Because of the many laws that regulate disclosure of public documents, I hope you will understand and respect the reasons why the District strives for uniformity and consistency in the intake and processing of record requests.”

Not true. The process for me has not been the process for everyone. Some requesters must go through Anderson; others don’t. Some are threatened with an injunction against their request; others aren’t.

The Public Records Act says agencies must provide the most timely response possible, and the fullest assistance. But, with some requests, Spokane Public Schools now purposefully prints out electronic records, then painstakingly scans them into a PDF. With some requests, the district now withholds records while it notifies thousands of citizens about the request and tells them they can 1) file for an injunction and 2) call the district for more information.

Are you getting the picture? The school district appears to have purposefully made the process more difficult for itself and for select citizen requesters. Now, it complains about how difficult the process is.

The Public Disclosure Commission (which oversees election activity) and the Attorney General’s Office (which oversees the PRA) do not typically initiate legal action against agencies for violations. It’s up to the citizens. Although the PDC and AGO are accommodating and professional, there is no local agency that offers advice or guidance. Citizens must do the best they can to request public records and to file formal complaints. It takes uncommon knowledge, effort and time to do it well.

If push comes to shove, citizens stand little chance against the government’s lawyers, who ironically are paid with taxpayer dollars. It takes knowledge to navigate the laws, and skill and money to navigate the legal system. It isn’t a fair or reasonable battle. Most people will give up, and I suspect that’s the point. Considering the foregoing, those who are willing to wade into the fray should be praised, not attacked, particularly if a public agency goes out of its way to be intimidating or to threaten or bully requesters.

In a Feb. 15, 2012, article, Inlander reporter Nicholas Deshais gave school district administrators the opportunity to publicly imply that three local citizens, including yours truly, are abusive requesters. Deshais wrote:

“Spokane Public Schools handled 34 requests for public records in 2009. Two years later, that number was up to about 90. Mark Anderson, associate superintendent of the district, handles the requests. He lays the blame for this sharp rise at the feet of one group of activists. ‘They probably make up 70 percent of the time, I’d say,’ Anderson says of the time needed to process requests made by Laurie Rogers, Breean (sic) Treffry, and Paul LeCoq (sic), three outspoken critics of the district. ‘The nature of the requests are (sic) getting more and more expansive.’”
Deshais didn't mention that Treffry and Lecoq each have filed a single request. Many other people also file requests, including staff from The Spokesman-Review (SR), Deshais himself and Inlander colleague Daniel Walters. But district spokesperson Terren Roloff said those requests aren’t abusive.

No kidding. It wouldn’t be smart of Roloff to criticize people who support school district positions. In fact, it’s probably smarter of her to nominate them for an award.

Meanwhile, in a March 2012 commentary, the SR’s Shawn Vestal wrote that some “opposition” to the school district seems “less than fully hinged.” Vestal called my work “conspiracy-minded” and “poorly informed” – oh, the irony. He suggested that these efforts are a “fishing expedition” and a “paper chase” over some “vast, vague conspiracy.” Then he gave a grudging acknowledgment that I might nevertheless have managed to stumble over something worth discussing – along the lines of “Even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while.”

Vestal didn’t acknowledge that the newspaper has refused for years to properly investigate the school district. He didn’t say whether he has filed any requests (if it was just one, he’s on par with two of the citizens he criticized), nor did he mention fellow reporter Jody Lawrence-Turner’s numerous requests of the district for data, information and story ideas. Vestal also declined to mention the media’s failed “fishing expedition” last year on local teacher Jennifer Walther. (Convenient, that.)

I haven’t claimed a conspiracy. Vestal suggested I did and then criticized me for it. I also didn’t “object” to being called “a conservative.” In an email, I asked him to support his description of me, which he failed to adequately do. I’ve never actually spoken with Vestal. Why would I? I don’t see him as being on the side of truth, fairness, accuracy or the people.

A school-district employee told me last week that these records requests seem like a “waste of time.” I assure you they are not. Ensuring a transparent government is never a “waste of time.” Two of the records requests have led to a formal investigation by the Public Disclosure Commission.

I will continue to do the job Vestal and so many of his media colleagues are refusing to do. Information is power, and We, the People must have that power. Knowledge is critical to maintaining a free country, particularly in today’s time, when so many in the media appear to see the government as the victim and the people as the problem.

*************

Here is some information on Washington State’s Public Records Act. It’s a people’s initiative, there for the citizens. Even if the media don’t value it, We the People must.

From the Attorney General’s Web site: “Citizens can control their government only if they remain informed about the decisions their government officials are making. That important principle underlies Washington's open public records and meeting laws. The laws, which are now more than three decades old, are intended to give us an informed electorate that can evaluate the performance of elected officials and in order to ensure an honest, competent and responsive government.”

For directions on public records requests, see the AG Web site. The Public Records Act applies to all government agencies, not just to school districts. It helps citizens hold their city, their county, their Public Health District, or any other public agency accountable for its actions.

Please help defend open government in this country. Do not allow our government agencies to conduct the people’s business in secret, as we pay their salaries and entrust them with our children.

If you want to know more about RCW 42.56, the Public Disclosure Commission, public records requests, the records requests I’ve filed, or why I’m doing what I’m doing, please write to me at wlroge@comcast.net.


Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:

Rogers, L. (April 2012). “In defense of public-records requesters." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com/.

This article was republished April 16, 2012 on Education Views at: http://educationviews.org/2012/04/16/in-defense-of-public-records-requesters/

4 comments:

Richard Reuther said...

Sadly, only the Powerful have the Power to accumulate more Power. When we went to our local paper serving Edmonds regarding the bullying that we endured at the hands of administration, the reporter was eager to look into it. Three days later she called back, apologized and told us they couldn't pursue the story. No reason was given. We did figure out that the editor and the superintendent went to the same Rotary.

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work Laurie!

@Richard - I'm in Olympia and our Superintendent also has good ties to the paper so almost everything written about the district is positive (most of it is just regurgitated press releases from the district). Want to publish the truth about district practices in a Letter to the Editor? It won't get published.

Arroyoribera said...

Just a few thoughts:

1) As of May 1, 2012, Washington State Senator Lisa Brown, the sponsor of the restrictive legislation mentioned by Ms. Rogers, is history. She announced that she will not run for re-election.

2) I successfully obtained records from Spokane District 81 in 2005 and 2007 regarding military recruitment in Spokane high schools. A few of the two or three dozen documents are posted on my blog here:

http://spokanepoliceabuses.wordpress.com/2008/03/23/north-central-high-counselor-working-hard-on-behalf-of-us-military-recruiters/

3) Of course the business, style, and philosophy of the District 81 is influenced by now former Spokane Assistant City Attorney (fired after the hiring of a new City Attorney by the new mayor), the notorious Rocky Trepieddi. Trepieddi is notorious in part for his vindictive counter-suits against citizens who threaten to the sue the city. Other actions to deter public access to information and to challenge their government, such as restrictions on people's access to school district records, would fit perfectly well with that approach. During Treppiedi's tenure with the city of Spokane, the city and the police (which he so staunchly defended regardless of its offenses) were involved in numerous scandals involving the failure to release records, withholding evidence, etc.

The Inlander reported in an article entitled "Between Rocky and a hard spot: (quote) Treppiedi — who did not return multiple calls seeking comment for this article, and said recently he would not go on the record with anyone reporting for The Inlander — has defended the Spokane Police Department for more than 20 years, and in those decades has earned a reputation for being intimidating and creating an environment that encourages police misconduct. (end quote). This pattern of intimidation is no doubt found in Treppiedi's advice to the district. A March 3, 2007 Spokesman Review article spells out the history of Treppiedi's poor legal advise to the city and what it has cost taxpayers.

As I have long advocated, get rid of Treppiedi, get rid of many problems. The city did it. Now the people need to do it at the next school board election.

Anonymous said...

Laurie--thank you for fighting the good fight! Nothing will change until we start listening and reading and interacting with the power structures that be, and then taking action! Thank you so much for the Malcolm X quote, and the article. Keep it up!

"The white man knows what a revolution is. He knows that the Black Revolution is worldwide in scope and in nature. The Black Revolution is sweeping Asia, is sweeping Africa, is rearing its head in Latin America. The Cuban Revolution - that's a revolution. They overturned the system. Revolution is in Asia, revolution is in Africa, and the white man is screaming because he sees revolution in Latin America. How do you think he'll react to you when you learn what a real revolution is?"
Malcolm X