Going Public

public records

Yesterday felt like Friday. But it wasn’t. I hate fake Fridays.

I went to the WAPRO conference yesterday. For those of you who don’t know, it’s all about records management if you’re a government entity. Hillary Clinton and the deleted emails? That was a Class C felony in the state of Washington. But I don’t know anything about that.

Anyway, the conference was in Lynnwood, which is north of Seattle. About 400 of us listened to librarians talk about fulfilling disclosure requests. They gave us solutions about retaining texts. The lawyers took over and discussed case  law with a special session on what to do if your agency gets sued. They had a 3-page section on what to do and what not to do if you get deposed.

Good times, my friend. And you missed it.

Every time I attend one of these, I’m struck by two things. First, the people in the room, on the podium as well as the strangers around the table, are way smarter than me. I mean, like Mensa champs. I would totally lose to them at Jeopardy! Most heinously.  As for Scrabble…fuggedaboutit.

The second thing I’m reminded of the fact that we’re public servants. Our rule within our agencies is to provide requestors what they seek, to the best of our abilities. True, records are only a side gig for me. I don’t do many public records requests in a year (knock on wood). Yet the 1972 law is clear – transparency rules:

The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created. The public records subdivision of this chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy.

As much as this can be an onerous task, searching for records and maintaining what we do have, the need for transparency and truth is inspiring. I’m proud of Washington for enacting this law. They keep the exemptions in check with The Sunshine Committee. I remember we’re governed by “we the people” not any one person or group. It’s a beautiful thing.





Sunshine Committee

Not this song. I confess I had the chorus of the song in my head most of the day, though.

The Sunshine Committee, formed in 2007, reviews the 300-plus exemptions to the Public Records Act of 1972.  The committee tries to reduce the number of exemptions permitted by law, citing Justice Louis D. Brandeis statement, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Yesterday I attended one of their quarterly meetings.

The thirteen-strong committee is mainly comprised of lawyers, senators and representatives. No regular folk, save one journalist. Everyone around the table wore a suit.  Some wore bow ties.  Bow ties are making a comeback, people.  You heard it here first.  I felt woefully under dressed in my short-sleeved cardigan, shell and not-clown pants.

The first item of new business surrounded the concept of protecting the privacy of child crime victims. The city lawyer from Kent, Washington brought a newly-worded exemption. She stated that at this point, the perpetrators have more anonymity. The group debated this as a few dissenting voices rose at adding more redactions, and the committee decided to revisit it at the next meeting.  Similar thing happened with police body cameras.  The city of Seattle is piloting a program right now.  In the wake of Ferguson and other police incidents, having a way to monitor police behavior jumps to the top of the public’s concerns. The cameras work fine.  However, cataloging, sorting and finding the videos themselves doesn’t come easy. No software exists for this function. It’s a cumbersome program at this time.

Near the end of the meeting, with me drowsy and drowning in legalese, they passed out copy on two bills the Sunshine Committee put through the legislature. They felt proud of the reworded exemptions. The chairman, Michael Schwab, asked the founder, Lynn Kessler, if when she founded this group 8 years ago she pictured it evolving this way.

“No,” she said, chuckling.  “I thought we’d review the exemptions and cut down on them.”

The members of the group congratulated each other on getting the bills passed.  They reminisced about the debates and how hard it was to narrow down certain aspects of the wording.

“But isn’t this exactly what you didn’t want to do? Weren’t you started to create more light, not darkness?” asked the newest member of the group, a curly-haired gal in a beige tweed suit. Beige, friends, was the color of the day.

A moment of silence.

The group agreed that their original mission was to eliminate exemptions and uphold the wording of the 1972 act:  We, the people, do not yield our sovereignty…They started defending their actions. They didn’t change their minds about the joy of having some influence in lawmaking.

“Success, to me, is elevating the public debate on these issues,” said the chairman. He’s right.

I couldn’t fault the team.  Sometimes, the things we get into don’t turn out the way we’d planned. We think a friendship with someone will go one way and it goes another way. We have children, and well, the top flies off the box. Anything can happen. Washington remains one of the most progressive states regarding open public records. It’s not an easy place to live. Continually balancing the weight of privacy vs. the public’s right to know is a noble and necessary mission. Priorities – and technologies – will change over time. May the Sunshine Committee shine for a long, long time.