Pace of PRA Legislation Mirrors PRA Requests

As the Legislature hits full stride, open government initiatives and reforms continue to make headlines and receive editorial ink.

The Tacoma News Tribune reports that newly sworn-in Attorney General Bob Ferguson wants to reinstate a full time open-government ombudsman in the Attorney General’s Office. The Tribune also notes his support for HB 1198, requiring training for public officials and employees on public records and open meetings.

Citing a potential Gold Bar bankruptcy stemming from public records act requests and lawsuits, public officials lobbied for HB 1128, which allows an agency to seek an injunction against requesters who seek to harass or intimidate the agency or its employees, the Everett Herald reports. The bill also allows agencies to limit employee hours spent compiling responses to PRA requests if those agencies provide several types of records online.

The Olympian offers a different perspective on HB1128. Citing the continuing “assault” on the Public Records Act, the Olympian’s editorial board finds the attempted tradeoff between agency efficiency and openness “unsatisfactory.”

Citing the Public Disclosure Commission’s role as election watchdog, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin editorial board offered its support to Rep. Jim Moeller’s effort bolster PDC funding. HB 1005 would require annual fees from political committees, politicians and lobbyists who file with the PDC. Proponents expect about $600,000 a year in additional revenue for the agency.

Depositions That Are Not Used in a Case - Even Those Held Before a Judge in a Courtroom - Are not Open to the Public

The Washington Supreme Court rejected an appeal from Tacoma News Tribune to see the videotaped deposition of a primary witness against a former Washington State trial judge. Tacoma News Inc. v. Cayce  (July 14, 2011). [Tacoma News, Inc. v. Cayce (Dissent)]

The primary witness in the underlying criminal case had long evaded a court subpoena and was being held in jail as a material witness until he could be deposed. The prosecutors scheduled a videotaped deposition to preserve the witness testimony, fearing the witness would again disappear. The deposition was held in the Pierce County courthouse so that it would be easier for the jail guards to escort and guard the witness. At the parties’ request, Judge Cayce, the visiting judge from King County, was also present in the otherwise-empty courtroom to make rulings, if necessary, as the deposition proceeded. As it turned out, the witness did actually appear to testify, and the videotaped deposition was never offered nor produced at trial.

The criminal case involved the prosecution of Judge Michael Hecht, a sitting Pierce County Superior Court judge, who was alleged to have both solicited male prostitution and to have threatened one of them if he said anything about the judge’s interactions. Hecht was later convicted by a jury and sentenced by Judge Cayce.

The Tacoma News Tribune argued that, because Judge Cayce presided over the deposition in a Pierce County courtroom, the videotaped deposition became a public court proceeding to which the newspaper and the public had a right of access under the Washington and US Constitutions. The Washington Supreme Court, however, in a 7-2 decision disagreed. The Court held that the fact the deposition was held in a courtroom and that the judge was present to make rulings did not convert a deposition into a courtroom hearing. Depositions are normally closed to the public and never become part of the court record, unless they are used in the trial or relied on in a motion. The fact that the judge was physically present to rule on objections did not alter the fact that this was a deposition and not court testimony.

The Court found that, since the deposition never became part of the court record, it was not subject to disclosure under Article I, Section 10 of Washington’s Constitution that provides “Justice in all cases shall be administered openly and without delay.” Quoting from a prior case, the Court stated: “Article I, section 10 is not relevant to documents that do not become part of the court’s decision.”

Can Disruption at a Public Meeting Lead to a Moveable Feast? Yes, But Washington's Open Public Meetings Act Requires that the New Location be Decided by Vote

The Tacoma News Tribune reports that the Puyallup School Board may have run afoul of Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act (“OPM”) when it adjourned a disruptive meeting to a new location without disclosing where that was.

The Puyallup School Board faced a rowdy crowd at its May 9 meeting – a vociferous display of support for a local high school Principal who had submitted his resignation. When the time came to vote on whether to accept or reject the Principal’s resignation, shouting and chants from the crowd reportedly disrupted all order at the meeting. The Board President announced an adjournment of the meeting to another location.

But, the Board appears to have overlooked specific requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act. RCW 42.30.050 allows a public body to adjourn a disruptive meeting and reconvene at a new location. However, that new location must be “selected by majority vote of the members.” Thus, not only must there be a vote to move to a new location, but the new location must be publically approved by a majority of the Board. Public notice of the new location is vital and necessary, because the same statute also provides that “Representatives of the press or other news media, except those participating in the disturbance, shall be allowed to attend any session held pursuant to this section.”

Adherence to the procedural requirements of the OPM are critical, as RCW 42.30.060 mandates that actions taken in violation of the OPM are null and void.

Public Comments at City Council Meeting Not Prohibited Political Activity

In our posting on November 18, 2010, we noted the reported complaint by a Sumner City Councilmember against the City's mayor and others. The claim arose from comments adverse to the councilmember made in an open, public meeting of the Sumner City Council. The councilmember asserted that the use of public city council meetings for such political comment was a violation of law. With limited exceptions, Washington law prohibits the use of public property and resources for political purposes. See RCW 42.17.130. The Tacoma News Tribune has now reported that the Councilmember's allegations have been rejected by the State's Public Disclosure Commission.