Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Public Records Laws Give Power, Demand Responsibility

by August 24th, 2010

Via the, Leslie Brown of Vashon-Maury Beachcomber reports that eight of nine members of the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council – the Unincorporated Area Council representing the island community to King County government – have resigned. The body is one of six countywide.

This comes directly on the heels of a requested legal opinion from the county, which established that the government-funded, volunteer community council would have to comply with state’s Public Records Act.

Worried about time burdens and liabilities that could be tied to detailed and voluminous information requests, the advisory council to county government seems likely to dissolve, sever its formal relationship with King County and re-form strictly as a non-profit organization, according to Brown’s report. The story raises important points about the rights and responsibilities of citizens and governments around disclosure, and highlights a distinction becoming more noteworthy – between forced disclosure on one hand, and voluntary disclosure, on the other hand.

(VMICC member) Kari Ulatoski, reached Thursday, said she felt she had no choice but to resign because of the potential ramifications of the county’s analysis. Complying with the open meetings act is something the board already does, she said. But the public disclosure act “” which requires a government agency to turn over a wide array of public documents to those who seek them or face fines of up to $100 a day for each page of a public document it fails to provide “” is much more far-reaching and could prove onerous, she said.

What’s more, she added, she worries that the community council’s limited insurance coverage could prove inadequate, should the council be fined for failure to comply…The county weighed in on the question of whether the community council has to meet the requirements of the state’s public records act at (Chairperson Jean) Bosch’s request.

The VMICC has been subject to extensive records requests from one local resident who has been a prominent opponent of a county decision to re-zone the former K2 factory property on Vashon Island for commercial use. In their opinion, county lawyers acknowledge the VMICC isn’t a government agency, but posit that it’s subject to the state open meetings act and public records act because it functions akin to a public body, gets most of its funding from the county, and works in synch with county officials. Our Countywide Community Forums, in contrast, takes no government funding to support its citizen advisory work with King County: CCF is privately underwritten, primarily by the Spady family of Dick’s Drive-Ins in Seattle.

For VMICC, it is a difficult situation for the volunteer leaders who put in long hours for little reward other than occasional acknowledgment from fellow community members. But it is hard to see how a government advisory body that is primarily funded by taxpayers could be exempt from the state’s far-reaching open records act. And the act does serve the public interest. That is not to say that it can’t be abused; it definitely can. I have heard from municipal government leaders concerned about how to reply to sweeping public information requests for all Twitter and Facebook posts by local elected officials which pertain to their official role. Archiving tools do exist to supply that information, but it’s good for all concerned if citizen activists to strive for as much specificity as possible when wielding of their powers under open records laws.

Also important is the dichotomy between forced disclosure and voluntary disclosure. At the Open Government West conference last March in Seattle, government staffers freely admitted that the culture of openness is only beginning to get established in many corners of the public sector: there is still resistance. But at the same time, as conferees noted and as events continue to convincingly demonstrate, the sun is shining in on the public’s business more and more every week, even without the lever of disclosure law. We have been documenting that on a regular basis at our Public Data Ferret project. Local, regional and national media are simply not able to keep up with the flow of useful new reports, audits, investigations, legislation, and even consumer-oriented databases – all abundantly available online at government Web sites.

There are many ways government could make this sort of information easier to find; and there is a corresponding need for citizens to be educated on how to time-efficiently locate the most valuable public records online. More intelligent search tools are another piece of the puzzle. Right now, one good place to start is with the document attachments to the online agendas of your local city council, county government or school district. State and federal legislative bodies and agencies also offer a wealth of information. We have identified some of the useful sites for the City of Seattle, other local governments in King County, King County and regional governments in Puget Sound, Washington state government, and the federal government.

As time progresses, the filtering and synopsizing function will become more and more important, as will the conversations and collaborations between community and government stake-holders around high-value public information that in years past would barely have seen the light of day unless reported by the media. We are all journalists now. And part of the job description is focus, and clarity.

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