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Bungled public records requests: A threat to city, county budgets

Bungled public records requests: A threat to city, county budgets

(AGO, Open Government) Permanent link

By Attorney General Rob McKenna for In General

*Note: This blog post has been modified slightly for tone.

LaughingAGOur state’s laws allow access to most government records. All you have to do is ask. Generally, these laws work as intended, allowing citizens to engage in an open and transparent dialogue with the government that serves them.

Unfortunately, in some cases, government staffers simply don’t take the public records act seriously. In others,  individuals have learned how to use the public records act as a weapon to punish government. They’ve learned some government staffers aren’t always sure how to handle particular records requests and they capitalize on their mistakes.  In the end, the result is the same. When a staffer withholds documents that should have been released,  that mistake can be quite costly – for both the requestor and the government.

Requestors have no recourse than to spend their hard-earned money to file lawsuits—and if government loses these lawsuits, the payouts in the form of fines and attorneys fees are shouldered by taxpayers. This can punch a real hole in local budgets.

Case in point: The bungled public records requests that sent the city of Mesa, Washington (population 440) to the brink of financial ruin.

In 2002, the city’s former mayor and her husband began requesting public records about a variety of issues, including an expired building permit. Donna and Jeff Zink made 172 records requests over three years. That’s certainly a tall order for a city with only four employees to handle records requests, however, the court brushed away the lack of manpower as an excuse.

The city hadn’t turned over all the requested documents. Cities, large and small, are required to comply with open government laws.  Mesa owes $246,000 in attorney fees and fines for failing to comply with the Zinks’ requests.  The small town’s insurance won’t cover it, forcing city leaders to consider bankruptcy or disincorporation.

Then there’s the case of retiree Harold Carey. He was puzzled about his Mason County sewer assessments and wanted to know why a certain highway project was over-budget.  In 2006, he filed series of record requests with Mason County. No response. He e-mailed and called, but still nothing. Finally, Carey filed a lawsuit. In course of the case, it was discovered that the county’s public records officer had designated Carey’s messages as spam, sending him to her blocked senders list.

After investing a great deal of his own money in lawyers and legal fees, Carey finally won access to the documents he sought – as well as $150,000 in fees and fines. It was a bad deal for Mr. Carey and a worse deal for Mason County taxpayers.

These cases show that when it comes to public records requests, there are huge consequences to requestors and taxpayers when government agencies don’t comply properly. When record-requestors are denied access to the files they want, or when they’re shut out of a meeting that should, according to the Open Public Meetings Act, be open, they can either walk away or hire an attorney. As these two cases demonstrate, lawsuits are expensive. And they often take years to resolve.

Keep in mind that state and local government employees properly respond to hundreds of requests on a regular basis.

In fact, in my office alone, public records staff received roughly 70 public records requests in January and February. Some are fairly easy to address and others are quite complex, requiring weeks and months to complete. Even when government is working hard to comply, there’s no guarantee they won’t face a costly lawsuit.

There’s a common sense and more cost-effective way to resolve disputes between those seeking public records or open meetings and the government that is trying to comply: An administrative board to rule on alleged violations of sunshine laws.

Other states have boards that referee open government conflicts by looking into potential violations and issuing decisions. As a result, requestors receive records and gain entry to improperly closed meetings sooner. Costly court cases become less common.  Such a board can also suggest legislative reforms and train government workers to comply with open government laws.
This legislative session, State Auditor Brian Sonntag and I called for legislation to build an independent Office of Open Government.  Although this proposal would save both state and local governments a lot of money in the long run, there is an up-front cost, so the bill will have to wait for a better budget year. Perhaps 2011 will provide that opportunity.

This week, March 15-19, is National Sunshine Week. It’s a time to encourage conversations about open government. I hope that cities and counties, both small and large, will take the opportunity to renew their commitment to transparency and save taxpayers’ money at the same time.

Learn more about the AGO’s work to promote open government at

Posted by Public Affairs Unit at 04/01/2010 03:55:25 PM | 

I disagree with the lack of accountability to a person who does or does not do the act. It is always forced on to the tax payer, a tax payer by definition is the producer, some one who puts products and services on the shelf and makes them available to you and me. But in all circumstances are the ones held accountable for all others mistakes. Who are all others, those that are not producing products and services to put on the shelf for others to use.

Public office is a deficit, having an abundance of public offices is only a bigger deficit. Should we actually be held to the services stated by our constitution public offices would be very sparse or few.
But some do not think so and believe we should increase the size and how many public offices there are both increasing the deficit and the infractions that come with this. This is a very bad view and the results show us why.
Why do we need transparency? For honesty only, to keep public servants honest. This is a good practice, it keeps it on the up and up, it is the size of it that breaks it down and kills the sustainability of our successes.

Accountability needs to be put on the indavidules who expand it beyond reality, to unsustainable levels. This is not done and it has always been passed down to the worker over and over and with this shows or teaches no responsibility for those imposing it.

Until we hold individual’s accountable in this state particularly we shall fail continually. All we need to see for information is results and the results will inform us. Right now we see very poor results both in shortfalls on budgets as well keeping up with transparency and both of these results tell us it is far too big and has to stop.

This is ethics in its own right telling us outright it is out of control and stating clearly it needs to be evaluated and corrections made period. The only transparency we need then is the results of whether or not it can sustain itself or not and those who go against these ethical procedures need to be held accountable for their poor choices and not the working people who have done nothing but give to their communities by what they do alone.

A public office is a privledge and not some right to do as you please.

Responsibility is all of us; it does not only belong to the producing people of this state, this country or this world only. Products that create exchange are our only chance to survive period.
Posted by: William Scholer ( Email ) at 3/23/2010 8:30 AM

Counties probably just don't have enough people to take care of such requests. However, sending someone's request to "spam" time after time - this issue should be addressed.

And yes, governmental transparency is absolutely essential for any democracy.
Posted by: Ana ( Email ) at 5/31/2010 7:16 AM

This is just shows how awful off we are that workers are not skilled well sufficient, and we also do not enough people to employees many of the businesses
Posted by: dinariraqi ( Email ) at 7/22/2010 5:41 AM

The Public Disclosure Laws in this State were established to make the government accountable. It further drives home the point that government employees and agencies work for the people and are not above the people they serve.

Washington state government is awash with government employees who forget who they work for and sometimes it takes a court to refresh the employee or agency's memory of who their boss actually is.

A government board overseeing the actions of fellow government employees will almost certainly fail to address violations in any meaningful way. That is why the law was written to give the courts the power to hold the government accountable. The branches of government are there for a purpose.
Posted by: Justin ( Email ) at 10/22/2010 8:55 PM

I live in AZ in a little community called “Congress”. The little school district of 125 kids is the reason why there are laws and agencies in place. To protect the tax payers. Our little school district brought a SLAPP lawsuit against myself and three other women on Jan 28 of 2010. It broke in the newspapers coincidently during Sunshine Week. When listening to the districts accusations of why they are being harassed by me, I would agree, they were harassed and maybe you ought to go so far as put me in jail!
But then there’s the other side of the story. We were so fortunate to have the Goldwater Institute call and ask if they could represent us once the story broke. We were able to produce documents and show how this had progressed over a period of 2 years really, but 10 years if you read the court docs. Other documents from other state agencies had shown a track record by this school to manipulate those agencies behind the eye of the public during the investigations. The district implied how hard they were trying to comply with the laws on the books.
Documents have been misdated, presumably on purpose to show compliance. Email shows the back door conversations trying to find ways around compliance. Our district has gone so far now to “table” the call to the public, and to “suspend the form used to ask to speak to the board on Oct 13, 2010.. Presumably until we tire and go away. The SLAPP suit is costing the taxpayers untold dollars. Our district won’t even answer that question.
There needs to be a federal law that is complied with in every state and a state board under that. Most states have the beginning organization that they need already. The Ombudsman office could have a committee authorized by the legislature to over see these issues. The Ombudsman office could be the final say. But they need the enforcement authority. No new dollars have to be spent. I believe there are many people that would want to make this a commitment to cut down on the costs associated with fighting these things. Another choice is use the mediation system before a court case can be filed. $100 per group to pay for the mediation fees. The mediator being the final word, or having the mediator go thru the items and present a report to the ombudsman for a final say.
The sad part is, in a small community such as ours, people are misled and given fabricated information. Our community neighbors have condemned the requestors on the mere word of the administration. To give that much credence to a few people and no one takes the time to actually verify the charges is shameful at best. At worse each person that does not try and find the information out for themselves and try for a better solution to resolve the disputes are as guilty as the administration manipulating the system to protect their own.
Remember my opening paragraph on the possibility of trying to put me in jail? Well the district tried that already on January 28 of 2003. The date is a co-incidence you say? It’s after the hundredth day. That incident was filed against myself, my daughter and my grandson, for allegedly hacking in to the districts computers. It came on the heals of Dept of Ed Special Unit complaints. 28 out of 29 complaints found non compliant. No, the hacking report was not included in the lawsuit. The district appears to think Public Records Requests are more important than hacking into a computer and implying millions of dollars were at stake. The reason they didn’t include this hacking incident? I can only surmise, because it was all fabricated, just as this lawsuit is.
Google SLAPP lawsuits, see what the benefits are. That should help everyone to understand why it is so important to create an enforcement authority soon.
If anyone is interested in the rest of the story, feel free to contact me, or follow the links on my facebook page to the pogo drive for verification of the documents.
Posted by: Jean Warren ( Email ) at 10/23/2010 2:18 PM

It seems as though many of the details of the cases mentioned in this article were left off Mr. McKenna. It seems odd that the Zinks requested these documents about a "variety" of issues; I wonder how those issues turned out? Did they need those documents? Of Mr. Carey, was he correct that his sewer assessment needed further review? It seems these Open Public Meets Act cases are meeting their goals if people are getting the access they need to prove corruption. If the only issue with filling the requests is man-power, then make the request turn-around time before violation a function of the staff size, and be done. Say a single person should be able to fill 30 requests a month (made up number, I have no idea), and that an agency is required to have at least one staffer assigned to requests for every x employees (probably a poor function relating size, but you get the idea) and there, volume is no longer an issue. However, I don't think that any of these cases of missing documents, or unfulfilled requests are due to man power. I think that if you read in to any of these cases, the agencies are covering egregious error, and trying to protect themselves from it.
Posted by: Bill ( Email ) at 3/9/2011 6:19 PM

I tend to agree with Attorney General Rob McKenna's view about the cost to the taxpayer under the existing structure. Surely an administrative board or panel would be more cost effiicient than the system now in place.
Posted by: Paul Scully ( Email ) at 12/23/2011 4:44 PM

I have been trying to obtain a copy of my personal hospital birth record from DOH-Health Statistics/Vital Records for a month. I have been told repeatedly they "cannot share the original document" but I am only requesting a copy. Nor have they responded to my inquiry on other state channels to request copy of my birth records. Talk about obfuscation! They also informed me that to correct the name on birth record in dispute I must file for a legal name change and provide them a court order. They have not addressed my request to research the previous birth certificate numbers in vital records and simply reference the hospital birth record on file which they claim shows my last name as hyphenated between 2nd middle name and last name creating a whole new last name. Records I obtained from hospital of my birth along with copy of previous birth certificate and State licensing for operators license all reflect previous name matching SSN card and military records for previous 46 years. Pretend I am from Missouri instead of Washington and send me the copy of document then I can decide to either dispute as erroneous interpreted document or file for legal name change. Being flat out told that I cannot have a copy of DOH hospital birth record and that my only recourse for correction is court order legal name change is ridiculous after 46 years of federal and state identity records. Maybe birth record forms should be changed to separately record first, middle, and last names to avoid such a situation? My parents who both still live and reside in Washington are also stunned and amazed at this situation. Now I am looking at spending more money and time for an attorney to address something I cannot even see. I have learned a whole new definition of public servant after a 24 year military career. In the absence of proof I am left with impression that database spit out an erroneous certificate and when I disputed it some clerk decided it was easier for me to do a name change and a line appeared on a copy to ensure that burden be on me instead of them doing their job either checking archives or processing correction to ensure database was correct or incorrect.
Posted by: Jay Slater ( Email ) at 12/30/2011 8:21 AM

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