In 1972, when state voters enacted the Public Disclosure Act, they made a Declaration of Policy, providing:

mindful of the right of individuals to privacy and of the desirability of the efficient administration of government, full access to information concerning the conduct of government on every level must be assured as a fundamental and necessary precondition to the sound governance of a free society.

Continue Reading Courts recognize the importance of efficient government in two new PRA decisions

The City of Prosser provides the latest example of how the Public Records Act can be very profitable for some.  The City has agreed to pay a requester $175,000 to settle a PRA lawsuit.  As recorded by theYakima Herald, the requester caught the City up in 11 mistakes after making 213 requests.  The PRA requires strict compliance and puts no limits on the number of requests a person can make at no cost to the requester.  

Taxpayers, of course, will pay the tab.  And this may not be the end of it — the requester has already warned "They’ve got to be fully prepared to go the next round." 

The First Annual “Open Government Year in Review 2008-2009” is now available for download.  The Year in Review collects articles on case developments and other open government issues during the last year.  Below is a partial list of articles.   Download your copy here.

Open Government Year in Review 2008-2009 partial table of contents:

Continue Reading Open Government Year in Review 2008-2009

Update July 13, 2009

Here is another story/editorial from the TNT on this case: “L&I, Justice Sanders run up the bill.”  Even the TNT notes the harsh nature of the L&I judgment:

A half-million dollars does seem stiff, given that L&I did not contest that it was at fault for withholding the records. An agency spokesman told The Olympian that an employee had failed to take proper action in response to the records request.

Continue Reading Court: $500,000 for errors related to a single Public Records Act request

Here is an interesting editorial in the Wall Street Journal:  “Why Palin Quit Death by a Thousand FOIAs” The editorial highlights that public records laws can be abused to paralyze a government agency or a public office holder:

This situation developed because Alaska’s transparency laws allow anyone to file Freedom of Information Act requests. While normally useful, in the hands of political opponents FOIA requests can become a means to bog down a target in a bureaucratic quagmire, thanks to the need to comb through records and respond by a strict timetable. … Since Ms. Palin returned to Alaska after the 2008 campaign, some 150 FOIA requests have been filed and her office has been targeted for investigation by everyone from the FBI to the Alaska legislature.”

Continue Reading “Death by a Thousand FOIAs”

Here are recent open government headlines from Washington State — thanks to WaCOG andOg-Blog for finding these.

"D’Amico wins open records suit against Jefferson County for Commissioner Sullivan’s phone calls"  Port Townsend Leader

"Records show WWU hushing of information, criticism of student newspaper article" Bellingham Herald

"Monroe’s business gets done in secret"  Everett Herald

Last month I had the pleasure of teaching two classes to city officials at the Association of Washington Cities Conference in Spokane.  One hot issue raised by the city councilmembers was the use of blogs and Web 2.0 cites.  I cautioned against their use because the Public Records Act issues are unresolved.

Another topic at the conference, however, was about the use of blogs and Web 2.0 cites.  The presenter, Lakewood City Councilmember Walter Neary, has his own blog, Electing2Blog, Blogging by Elected Officials, dedicated to this topic.

When some of the councilmembers who attended my sessions cautioned about the risks of blogging created by the PRA,  … well here is Councilmember Neary’s take “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Public Outreach.

Here is another take on the exchange from the Olympia Time blog:  “The secret key to why city council members are told not to blog

Someone has also started a WIKI page on the topic entitled “Social Web handbook for Washington State local electeds

I will post the questions I have asked Tim Ford, the AG Open Government Ombudsman, about the legality of this topic shortly.

Update 7/5

What does this mean for other PRA cases?  If you have a case at the penalty stage, I’d probably seek a stay because unless the Court adopts the identical test,  if you do it now you’ll just have to do it again later.

Original Post

The Washington State Supreme Court has withdrawn its January Opinion in the long-running Yousoufian v. Office of Ron Sims case.  In that Opinion, the Supreme Court had ruled that the $124,000 Public Records Act penalty award against King County was too small.  The Opinion adopted 16 factors trial courts should use to set penalty amounts.  For more details on the Opinion, see this MRSC article.

Continue Reading Washington State Supreme Court Withdraws Yousoufian Opinion

In North Carolina, as in many states, attorney-fee awards to requesters who are forced to file a lawsuit to obtain records are discretionary.  New legislation, however, would make the award of attorney fees mandatory, except when the agency relies on legal advice to justify its decision to withhold the records.  The same legislation would require mandatory mediation prior to a lawsuit.

Washington’s Public Records Act already mandates a penalty that includes attorney fees and a daily award.  RCW 42.56.550(4).  But there is no exception for reliance on legal advice — or reliance on a prior court order.  As a result, governments are required to pay penalties from their public funds even when those governments act in good faith reliance on legal advice or on a court order.

For example, in West v. Thurston County, 144 Wn. App. 573, 183 P.3d 346 (2008), the County relied on a prior court order in another case providing that the same attorney-fee bills were work product when it told a requester those bills were exempt as work product pursuant to RCW 42.56.290.  After the lawsuit was filed, however, the Legislature amended the Public Records Act to clarify that attorney-fee bills were in fact subject to disclosure.  RCW 42.56.904.  As a result, the Court of Appeals ruled that the County had erred in withholding those records, and remanded for penalties – penalties that will be paid by the taxpayers of Thurston County.