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Eye On Olympia

Update from the Sunshine Committee…

From this morning’s paper:

OLYMPIA – Despite concerns by open-government advocates over two recent court rulings, a state task force looks unlikely to recommend changing the law that allows public officials and attorneys to keep some of their discussions and work secret.

“It’s not broken, so please don’t fix it,” attorney Don Austin told the Legislature’s Sunshine Committee on Tuesday in Olympia.

The group is examining the hundreds of exceptions that allow state and local governments to withhold information from the public. Among the most high-profile: attorney-client privilege for government agencies.

In a Spokane case involving The Spokesman-Review, the state Supreme Court in December ruled 5-4 that Spokane Public Schools was correct to deny the newspaper’s request for records involving a student’s death. Nine-year-old Nathan Walters, who was allergic to peanuts, died on a field trip in 2001 after eating part of a peanut butter cookie.

The school district settled with Walters’ parents but sued the newspaper to block the request to see the district’s investigation of what happened. As the product of its attorneys’ work, the district said, the interviews and other records were exempt from disclosure.

Critics of that court decision and a 2004 one involving attorney-client privilege say the rulings make it easier for public officials to shield much of what they do from the public.

Cities, school districts or any other government agency could simply hire attorneys to do any controversial investigations, then deny any public requests for the records, said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

“Almost anything that a government agency does could potentially result in a lawsuit,” he said. “If that’s interpreted to mean it’s all privileged, the public could be excluded from almost everything.”

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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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