October 3, 2008 in City

Officials discuss public access

Forum held on open government
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Open government advocates and public officials strongly agreed Thursday that the public deserves access to public documents and meetings.

“It’s the duty of government to be as open and transparent as possible,” Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said.

About 15 people attended the forum about open government at Spokane City Hall. The event was organized by the Washington Coalition for Open Government and sponsored by The Spokesman-Review.

The five panelists included representatives from local government, the state attorney general’s office and The Spokesman-Review.

Knezovich said that when his office declines to release information, it’s usually because of fears that the county could be sued by someone who believes their privacy was violated.

“If we do it wrong, it’s your money that we’re losing in the lawsuit,” Knezovich said.

Duane Swinton, an attorney who often represents The Spokesman-Review in public record cases, noted that state law gives extra protection to government agencies that release information in good faith.

James Richman, assistant city attorney for Spokane, said the city has learned that judges usually side toward openness. But he also noted that complying with the law can be expensive. Last year, he said, city departments spent about 6,000 hours complying with records requests. Richman said the city “has had an excellent record” on openness issues and pointed to televised meetings and a new feature on its Web site that gives people 24-hour access to thousands of records.

Still, Richman acknowledged that the city “has taken our lumps” on open records.

In 2007, the city agreed to pay $40,000 to an animal rights organization to settle an open-records lawsuit. A year earlier, the city decided to pay $299,000 to Camas Magazine and its publishers for withholding documents related to the River Park Square deal. The mall is owned by the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

“My impression is that Spokane is really not much better and not much worse than the other communities where I have been either a reporter or an editor,” said Gary Graham, The Spokesman-Review’s managing editor.

The forum’s moderator, Whitworth University associate communication professor Virginia Whitehouse, asked Graham if the paper could continue to fulfill its role as a watchdog given layoffs of more than two dozen newsroom employees, announced Wednesday.

Graham responded that some coverage areas likely will be hurt, but reporting on local government would remain a priority.

“There’s no question that performing our functions as a provider of information and watchdog will be more difficult with fewer people,” Graham said. Still, reporting on local government “will always be a fundamental platform of our newsroom. We will never shy away from that.”


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