April 2, 2008 in City

Records responses tested

Richard Roesler Staff writer

OLYMPIA – Not perfect, but not bad.

After nearly a year of mystery-shopper testing, that’s how the state auditor’s office rated the responsiveness of most government officials to people seeking public records.

“Generally I think people did fairly well,” said Mindy Chambers, a spokeswoman for state Auditor Brian Sonntag.

Spokane County and the city of Spokane Valley got high marks for fast and thorough responses in most cases, according to a draft copy of the report obtained Tuesday.

Still, there were numerous cases around the state in which people received little or no information. Sometimes responses took weeks.

For example, when asked for the Spokane Police Department’s records for out-of-state travel on the job, the report says, “City staff told us the request was on hold, pending advice from the (city) attorney, who never provided guidance. The City did not respond to the request.”

In another case, the report said, it took Spokane County 18 business days to provide a person’s job description.

City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said there was “a breakdown of communication” on the travel-records request. She said the city is adding a staffer and improving e-mail technology to make searches easier and faster.

“We thought we fared pretty well compared to other communities and jurisdictions,” she said. “We’re reviewing our public records policy right now, so this report might help us.”

Starting in November 2006, Sonntag sent out people to test how 30 large cities, counties and state agencies responded to public-records requests.

Testers filed requests – or tried to – by mail, e-mail and in person. And they deliberately picked records that would be easy to find.

They asked, for example, for a copy of the sexual harassment policy. They asked for the names and salaries of the top five employees. They asked for out-of-state travel records, the agency’s phone directory, and how much was spent on employee awards.

Friends and family members were recruited as volunteers to make the requests, Chambers said, so they appeared to come from average citizens rather than auditors.

The 11-month audit, slated to be released late this month, cost about $600,000.

Some officials blasted it as a waste of time and money. Thurston County Commissioner Diane Oberquell, for example, last summer slammed the audit as a “sting” operation.

Among the problems that surfaced in the audit: The city of Kent, when asked for the names and salaries of its five highest-paid employees, provided forms that were almost completely blacked out – including the names.

In other cases, e-mails seeking records were rejected by spam filters.

When two people went to Pierce County asking for a copy of its sexual harassment policy, staffers questioned why they were interested in it, where they went to school, and what branch of the school. When they balked at the questions, the manager reportedly told them that she “needed to know where the policy was going before she could provide it to them,” according to the report. All told, it took more than an hour to get a copy of the county’s policy.

In Spokane County, the same request took just nine minutes.

Washington’s public records law dates back to 1972, when voters approved Initiative 276. It requires that most state and local government records be open to the public.

Since then, more than 300 exemptions – things that officials can keep confidential – have been added by state lawmakers, usually at the prodding of special interests. A state task force is now trying to winnow that down.

Under the law, officials who wrongly withhold records can be fined up to $100 per document per day. Last year, the Department of Corrections settled one such lawsuit for $541,000. In 2006, the city of Spokane settled for $299,000 a similar case involving the Riverpark Square parking garage financing.

As part of the audit, investigators interviewed nearly 60 workers.

In some cases, the draft report says, the workers responsible for blacking out information like Social Security numbers don’t have a firm grasp of what can be released and what can be withheld. Government “staff may interpret ‘right to privacy’ much more broadly than state law does,” the report said. Some said they worry about embarrassing government. Some entities – including the city of Spokane – complain that having to comply with open government laws is too expensive and amounts to an unfunded mandate.

Chambers’ response: “Who do they work for? They work for citizens.”

The audit also includes advice for local governments: more training for staffers, a customer-service attitude, Web-based requests, prioritizing and tracking requests, and a “culture of openness.” It cites model rules for handling records requests, suggested by Attorney General Rob McKenna.

Feist said the city would like help from the state paying for the extra costs it insists are incurred by having to fulfill requests for public records. But she said Spokane tries to be as open as possible.

“It’s our goal to get citizens the information that they want and need,” she said.

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