In early 2011, City of Fife police officers submitted a whistleblower complaint to the City Manager. The complaint covered a range of topics including discrimination, misappropriation of public funds and improper workplace relationships. The City retained an outside entity to investigate the allegations. The City determined the investigation was thorough and the allegations were either not sustained or unfounded. One of the complaining officers submitted a public records request for the report, audio recordings and transcripts of interviews, and other records relating to the whistleblower complaint and investigation. The City began producing installments in May 2012, but redacted names and identifying information of witnesses, the accused officers, and complaining parties. The City also commenced an action for declaratory and injunctive relief regarding its obligations to produce records.
The Public Records Act (PRA) requires that when an agency withholds or redacts records, its response “shall include a statement of the specific exemption authorizing the withholding of the record (or part) and a brief explanation of how the exemption applies to the record withheld.” RCW 42.56.210(3). In a 5-4 decision, the Washington Supreme Court held in City of Lakewood v. Koenig that an agency’s violation of this requirement entitles the requester to attorney fees and costs, regardless of whether the records were properly withheld.
In this case, David Koenig had requested records from the City of Lakewood relating to certain police officer incidents. In its response, the city redacted, among other things, driver’s license numbers from the records, citing to various statutory provisions without additional explanation. In a majority opinion written by Justice Steven González, the court found that the city’s response violated the PRA because the city either failed to cite a specific exemption or failed to explain how the particular statute applied to the redacted driver’s license numbers in the specific records produced. As a result, “the burden was shifted to the requester to sift through the statutes cited by the city and parse out possible exemption claims.” Opinion at 7-8. Because the PRA provides that costs and reasonable attorney fees shall be awarded to a requester for vindicating “the right to receive a response,” the court held that Koenig was entitled to his attorney fees and costs, including those on appeal. Id. at 10-12.
On The Willis Report (FOX NEWS, July 29, 2010), a regular FOX Business News broadcast, host Gerri Willis reviewed some of the issues surrounding efforts to gather information about the salary of public officials in Bell, California. Gerri interviewed Steve DiJulio, a Foster Pepper lawyer and regular contributor to this blog. Steve discussed that many cities, before the Bell scandal, publicly posted salary information on their websites. He also discussed the process for gaining access to salary information of public officers and employees. Watch the interview here.
Update (April 22, 2009) — Happy Earth Day
In this editorial, Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr responds to an earlier editorial about his role in the “closed door” meeting controversy. The two editorials serve to highlight an often overlooked point — the public’s perception of a government’s compliance with open government laws can be more important than the government’s strict compliance with those laws. One of the primary purposes of open government laws like the Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act is to build public trust. If the public thinks the government is trying to keep something secret that should be public, it builds distrust.