(Note: See my analysis of Substitute House Bill 1128, a bill being pushed by public officials, which would essentially gut the Public Records Act for citizens in Washington State. See my Feb. 16 article, which outlines open-government issues in Spokane Public Schools.)
By Laurie H. Rogers
“Everybody knows that corruption thrives in secret places, and avoids public places, and we believe it a fair presumption that secrecy means impropriety.”
-- President Woodrow Wilson
Thus, federal and state laws have long provided Americans with the right to know what our government is doing. In Washington State, the Public Records Act (PRA) provides citizens with the legal right to ask government agencies for copies of records that are open to public inspection.
According to the PRA, citizens don’t have to ask public agencies for permission to see public records; don’t have to give reasons for wanting the records; don’t have to know legal language; don’t have to provide their name; can expect the “fullest” assistance from agencies; and need pay only a nominal fee for the records or the CD containing the records. If citizens don’t receive requested copies, they can take public agencies to court. These aspects of the PRA help to ensure agencies’ adherence to the law and equal access for all citizens. They also support several important principles of a free America:
- The government is there for the people. The people are not there for the government.
- The government should be transparent and accountable to the people. The people have the right to their privacy and to be protected from an antagonistic or corrupt government.
- The people are the collective boss of the government. The government is to implement the will of the people within the framework of the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights and U.S. law.
- Open government is necessary to a free society. The Washington State PRA, therefore, must always be “interpreted in favor of disclosure.”
- Open government isn’t there just for the wealthy, the well-connected, the media, lawyers or those who can afford to pay a lawyer. It isn’t there just for those who work with the government, vote with the government, are liked by the government, do the government’s bidding, or who will never want to know what the government does. Open government is there for all citizens.
In 2011, these directors made it a Legislative Priority to charge citizen requesters the costs to collect records from school districts. The directors went to Spokane Senator Lisa Brown, and she co-sponsored SB 6576 which would have mandated that all school districts charge requesters the personnel costs to collect public records, essentially double-charging taxpayers for certain salaries. (Requesters also would have to blindly trust in school districts to be efficient and to accurately assess these costs.)
The person in charge of handling records requests in Spokane Public Schools, however, is one of the district’s highest-paid employees. If requesters had to pay his salary again to oversee the collection of records, no one could afford to ask for records. But forcing requesters to pay again for any district salary is wrong and places the PRA out of reach of the vast majority of the public. Sen. Brown nevertheless attempted to ram through SB 6576 over Super Bowl weekend in 2012. Thankfully, the bill failed.
Apparently unembarrassed about their attack on the public’s right to know, these five directors are again attempting to undermine the PRA with their 2013 Legislative Priorities, which they adopted quietly and unanimously in their Oct. 24 regular board meeting. Among other things, the new Legislative Priorities are designed to ensure the flow of taxpayer dollars – regardless of what taxpayers can afford or what they wish to pay for – and to hamstring the public in its ability to enforce the Public Records Act.
These new Priorities weren’t placed on the district's Web site until after I asked about them on Dec. 12. They were never put before the people. Instead, they were buried on page 231 of the non-searchable “board book” for the Oct. 24 meeting. (Board books are given to directors before each board meeting, but they aren’t given to the public – i.e. posted on the district Web site – until well after board meetings are held.) Thus, the general public didn’t know the directors were poised to adopt these Priorities.
(Welcome to Spokane Public Schools. It’s always a joy to be here.)
These new Priorities are noteworthy for what they don’t discuss. Do they work to foster student academics? No. Do they work to ensure district accountability and district transparency? No. Do they work to further concern for the interests and well-being of the students, the teachers or the taxpayers? No. Do they suggest in any way that these board directors see themselves as the people’s representatives, rather than as representatives for the administration? No.
This school board wants to a) eliminate the people’s right to ask for records anonymously; b) delay our right to take legal action over withheld records; c) double-charge taxpayers for salaries involved in the collecting of public records; and d) mandate that requesters utilize an “internal appeals process” before taking legal action, thus forcing the public to “appeal” to employees of the same agency that refused to provide records. How many citizens would be able to spend time and energy engaging in such a fruitless exercise?
These directors did not speak with any citizen requesters I know about our experiences, nor did they display the slightest interest in doing so before attempting to persuade legislators to change the PRA. Not a peep, folks. So I asked them some questions about the Priorities, beginning with Jeff Bierman, the board’s legislative co-liaison. Bierman didn’t seem clear on what a public record is.
- Bierman referred my questions to Board President Bob Douthitt, who said he would answer on behalf of all five board directors, on the flimsy pretense that I’m a member of the media.
Douthitt’s response to my questions about the PRA assumes good faith and good intentions on the part of district administrators. I’ll address that assumption in a moment.
- Bierman replied, as he did last summer, that Douthitt would answer for him. He said, however, that he doesn’t think eliminating our right to file anonymous requests hampers the public’s ability to file requests. If his comment is sincere, it reflects a lack of knowledge of what’s happened to some citizens who filed records requests with this school district.
- Director Susan Chapin said, as she did last summer, that Douthitt would answer for her.
- Director Rocky Treppiedi said, as he did last summer, that Douthitt would answer for him.
- Director Deana Brower – legislative co-liaison for the board – said, as she did last summer, that Douthitt would answer for her.
Just one of five directors – these five elected representatives of the people – is willing to spend time explaining to the people why he wants to push for something that will undermine the PRA for everyone in Washington State. I’ll bet Spokane citizens didn’t realize they’d elected just one board director.
Meanwhile, district administrators have delayed providing certain records, refused to provide certain records, and refused to fulfill certain requests. The district did not provide all of the responsive records for a request of mine from January 2011, and a lawsuit was filed early in 2012 to obtain the missing records. After filing this lawsuit – the outcome of which is not yet resolved – the school district released thousands more records and several indexes of exemptions and redactions. Administrators also have, over the last few years:
- failed to provide all records in a reasonable amount of time that are complete in content and in their native electronic format with all metadata and attachments intact
- eked out the release of records, with multiple delays and open-ended dates of completion. (In one example, a disc received from the district for a simple request from February 2012 contained a small portion of responsive records. The administrator said he doesn’t know when the next disc is forthcoming.)
- delayed producing records by repeatedly asking for “clarifications”
- issued questionable redactions and exemptions, failed to provide required indexes of exemptions and redactions, and/or failed to notify requesters of exemptions that were taken
- printed out already-digital records and scanned them back in, causing delays and additional costs
- turned records into PDF files and Word documents, thus removing metadata, subject lines and other legally required pieces of information
- engaged in an inconsistent standard of action by treating requesters differently
- peppered residents with thousands of notices about certain requests, sometimes repeatedly, thus delaying certain responses by months or years and instigating public criticism of the requesters. In some cases, the negative impact extended to family members. (Each of these district notifications also is a public record and is subject to the PRA.) An administrator said the district has a “policy” of notifying all third parties, but not all requests are processed in this way.
- advised thousands of citizens – sometimes repeatedly – that they can file for an injunction to prevent records from being released. (In some cases, the administrators acknowledged they didn’t think the records were actually exempt from disclosure.)
- publicly mocked some requesters, and publicly implied that certain private citizens are abusive requesters (including two citizens who have each filed a single request). After being publicly called out via the media and via emails repeatedly sent around the city, one requester – who has filed just one request with the district – was intimidated off her request entirely.
- made a point of informing me in December 2011 that they were notifying hundreds of people each month about one of my requests, that people were getting upset, and that the district would keep notifying people unless I modified my request.
- said they would not fulfill anonymous requests. Despite being directed by the new superintendent to fulfill them, they have yet to provide records for two anonymous requests from June 2012.
- told a requester to provide proof of identity before records would be provided
- told another requester she should speak to the district’s lawyer before records would be provided
- claimed to be inundated with time-consuming requests, and yet, when asked for information on these requests, cited just a few.
- attempted to convince certain requesters to narrow their request
- cited attorney-client privilege for redacting or exempting records that don’t appear to be from/to an attorney. (Some records are from or to board directors who happen to be an attorney. Others are between administrators.)
- exempted records (or completely redacted records) that administrators say aren’t about government business.
- claimed excessive time and costs for collecting public records, yet their response to several requesters has been unnecessarily time-consuming and expensive.
What if records indicate that a public agency is working closely with a local group (to the point of actually being IN the group) that actively promotes ballot propositions or elective candidates?
Some records from Spokane Public Schools, obtained through records requests, prompted a complaint with the Public Disclosure Commission. A formal investigation is ongoing. Some records indicate that district administrators repeatedly met with members of Citizens for Spokane Schools (a local pro-levy group) to discuss upcoming campaigns. Others indicate that administrators repeatedly used public resources to disseminate to principals, administrators and CFSS a list of employees who donated money to CFSS. The lists contained personal and private employee information and cited employees' monthly donation to CFSS. (The lists also obviously clarified which employees did NOT contribute to CFSS.)
Director Douthitt said I can speak to the board about the PRA. I agreed to meet with the board president and the superintendent. What are the odds I will change minds? The directors haven’t bothered to speak with anyone I know about the impact on citizens if these new Priorities become law. They already adopted the Priorities in October and were already pushing them with legislators. The Priorities weren’t on the district Web site when I asked about them on Dec. 12. Just five days later, on Dec. 17, legislators pre-filed HB 1019, to eliminate the public’s right to file anonymous requests.
One month later, on Jan. 16, legislators filed HB 1128 to help agencies take legal action to prevent the release of records and to avoid penalties for a failure to produce records. It’s my belief that HB 1128 essentially guts the Public Records Act altogether.
Not one board director ever thought it important to tell me that legislative action was already being taken.
Meanwhile, about those two outstanding anonymous requests from June 2012? They pertain to these five board directors. One request appears to cover the directors’ 2012 attempt to undermine the PRA; the other request appears to cover the directors’ communications during the time each ran for the school board.
Americans shouldn’t have to be a lawyer or pay for a lawyer in order to see what our government is doing. Our free society depends on our ability to hold our government accountable. Five school board directors in Washington State aim to change the Public Records Act in ways that would make it far more difficult, expensive and time-consuming for citizens to hold them accountable for what they do with our children and our tax dollars. This shouldn’t be tolerated by the legislature or the people who elected them.
Please write to your legislators and advocate for the retention and strengthening of the Public Records Act and other laws on open government. Please tell them to reject any efforts to undermine or de facto eliminate this law that was passed by the people and for the people. Ask them to speak with Tim Ford, the open-government ombudsman with the Attorney General's Office, and Toby Nixon, the president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, about how to best retain and strengthen the Public Records Act.
See my analysis of Substitute HB 1128, a bill being pushed by public officials, which would essentially gut the Public Records Act for citizens in Washington State.
Ultimately at risk is our future as informed citizens of a free America.
Please note: The information in this post is copyrighted. The proper citation is:
Rogers, L. (January 2013). "Spokane school board attempting to undermine Public Records Act for all citizens in Washington State." Retrieved (date) from the Betrayed Web site: http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com