Public Disclosure Commission Provides a Resource for Campaign Finance Disclosure

Citizens are demanding an increasingly open government, and campaign finance databases are helping states to provide a more convenient level of access. While the public once needed to visit elections offices in person to peruse campaign finance disclosures, now it can happen with a keystroke.

In Washington State, the Public Disclosure Commission is leading the effort to increase transparency in campaign finance disclosure, and the Commission’s website is the vehicle for disclosing that information to the public.

The commission obtains campaign finance reports from candidates and political action committees, populates the database, and posts the database on its website. Visitors to the site can learn more about money entering campaigns and how it is spent, and they can gather information on candidates, political action committees, individual donors, and lobbyists. The site also allows visitors to link directly to the actual submitted reports. You can find the database here: www.pdc.wa.gov/MvcQuerySystem
 

Friday LOG Links - March 9th

 

White House launches www.ethics.gov as one-stop shopping for open government information. [Wall Street Journal]

New York follows suit with Mayor Bloomberg signing a data transparency law that will allow the City to “continue leading the country in innovation and transparency…” with a unified open-data repository that opens for business in just six short years. [Information Week]

The Legislature giveth and the Legislature taketh: Florida legislature requires newly elected governors to preserve email and other records created before they are sworn in. Florida legislature also re-adopts measure providing a two-year disclosure exemption for tax-incentive deals. [Miami Herald] [Orlando Sentinel]

Washington Court of Appeals rules that enough ($$$) is enough, upholding trial court’s calculation of penalties awarded to Public Records Act frequent flier Arthur West. [Washington Court of Appeals]

 

Everett School Board Plans a Meeting About Meetings

On November 25, 2011, Sharon Salyer of The Herald reported on Everett School Board planning to hold a forum early next year to discuss open government. The following is a reprint of the article in full:

Controversy has swirled around the Everett School Board all year over openness and transparency.

The school board now plans to hold a forum early next year to have outside experts discuss issues such as the state Open Public Meetings Act and the steps involved in getting records from government agencies.

Ed Petersen, school board president, suggested during a meeting Tuesday night that the school district contact a nonpartisan group, such as the League of Women Voters. The group could help select the experts who would speak on the state's open-government laws.

The goal is to have the event in January or February, Petersen said. It would give the public an opportunity to talk about openness in government.

"The benefits we're looking for are a better informed community and information from those who attend to help us in our operations," he said.

The idea for the forum was first proposed in September, as the School Board was wracked with controversy following a scuffle among three members, Petersen, Kristie Dutton and Jessica Olson.

Olson has often been at odds with other board members since being elected in 2009. Fellow board members have censured her twice this year.

At the same meeting that the school board was considering Olson's second censure, planner Reid Shockey of Everett suggested the special public meeting, which would include a panel of experts discussing open government and the state Open Public Meetings Act.

In other business during Tuesday's School Board meeting, board members discussed whether to grant a request from Olson to see unredacted copies of legal invoices or bills since June from a Seattle law firm which advises the school district.

Board member Jeff Russell said he was concerned about Olson's request to view unredacted invoices because they contain private and confidential information about staff, students and families.

"We rightly place conditions upon the viewing, copying, reporting or moving of such records," he said.

Dutton asked for Olson to sign a document saying that she would not remove any of the documents or post them on social media sites or in other way violate the privacy rights of those involved in legal issues.

"We have had Director Olson's assurance before that she would not copy or take the invoices and she did exactly that," said board member Carol Andrews.

Olson asserted that the legal invoices are not confidential. "They're the public's documents," she said.

Student names are abbreviated or initials are used, she said. Her earlier review of the legal billings showed "there was not one piece of information ... required to be redacted."

"We're telling the public that the invoices belong to the district and not the public," she said. "Each one of us is duly elected by the citizens. We have the right to go in and look."

The School Board voted not to allow Olson to see the unredacted invoices. However, Andrews later suggested that the board allow all board members regular access to redacted attorney invoices.

The motion was made after Olson left the meeting after approximately three hours due to a scheduling conflict. That motion was approved unanimously for the four remaining board members.

 Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.
 

Western Washington Is On The Map: U.S. Supreme Court Orders Release of Indian Island Navy Ammunition Maps Under FOIA

The latest public records decision from the U.S. Supreme Court has put Western Washington on the map.  The Court held 8-1 that Navy maps showing ammunition stockpiles at Indian Island (in Jefferson County, near Port Townsend) could not be withheld from disclosure under Exemption 2 of the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”).  Exemption 2 allows an entity to withhold records related to the internal personnel rules and practices of an agency.

In Milner v. Department of the Navy, the Navy argued that release of the maps would threaten public safety; the maps depict distances where damage could result from hypothetical explosions in buildings where weapons, ammunition and explosives are stored. But as reported by the Kitsap Sun, public safety is the very reason the maps were requested by local activist Glen Milner, who wanted information about whether his community might be endangered by the ammunition supply.

The crux of the case was whether Exemption 2 can be used to block the release of the type of documents in question. According to some of the amici curiae briefs before the Court (primarily news organizations and the ACLU), Exemption 2 had, over the years, become a catchall exemption for the government. “High 2” (as the exemption had become known) had expanded beyond its plain language through administrative interpretations and lower court rulings, allowing the government to withhold documents that were not clearly connected to an agency’s personnel rules or internal practices. Instead, based on a 1981 D.C. Circuit Court opinion, the “High 2” exemption had come to shield any internal documents whose release might risk circumvention of agency functions.

The Supreme Court held in favor of disclosure, finding that the maps were not “personnel rules or practices” under the plain language of Exemption 2, thus rejecting the 30-year old D.C. Circuit interpretation. Writing for the Court, Justice Kagan stated that the past tolerance of the expansive “High 2” reading of the statute  “pos[ed] the risk that FOIA would become less a disclosure than a ‘withholding statute’”. In a lone dissent, Justice Breyer stated that he would “let sleeping dogs lie”, noting that the courts have supported the broad use of Exemption 2 for the past 30 years.

The Court also noted that the Navy could rely on other FOIA exemptions to limit disclosure of the maps, such as the national security exemption (Exemption 1) or the law enforcement exemption (Exemption 7(f)) which allows an agency to withhold records that "could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual." But these issues were not decided by the District Court.

This case is likely to have a substantial impact on disclosure requests by prohibiting all agencies’ continued use of the “High 2” exemption to support expansive refusals to disclose  records. The Supreme Court has reminded us that exemptions to FOIA are narrowly construed, and all government agencies should think carefully about the narrow applicability of exemptions when asked for public records.

iPads Saving Cities Paper Costs - But at What Cost?

A recent article in USA Today is headlined “iPads Saving Cities Paper Costs.” The story focused on the cost savings that may result from the use of iPads for internal as well as external communications of cities. The difficulty, as noted by a spokesperson for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, is the communications on iPads (or iPhones and similar devices) do not necessarily create a record. The Coalition spokesperson was quoted by USA Today as identifying a critical issue in many states, including Washington: “Records generated are subject to disclosure, but we don’t have a mechanism for getting those records from an iPad.”

The State of Washington, like many states, broadly defines public records. The conduct of government business, whether by letter, email, text or other electronic message, may constitute a public record and governments are responsible for maintaining policies to assure public access to such records. One approach to record management is a requirement that a copy of messages relating to government business be sent to a government server.

The Washington State Office of the Secretary of State, applying that state’s Public Records Act, reminds Washington’s governments that the conduct of government business using iPads or iPhones does give rise to a public record of that communication and is to be kept consistent with the government’s record retention policy.

For additional assistance in this regard, see the Secretary of State website at:
http://www.sos.wa.gov/archives/RecordsManagement/ and recordsmanagement@sos.wa.gov.

FOX Business News Focuses on Public Record Access in Bell, CA Salary Scandal

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.