The Washington state Department of Transportation boasts the nation’s most extensive ferry system, delivering millions of passengers each year to their work, homes and recreation amid the watery grandeur of Puget Sound.
Every so often, though, something goes wrong, such as on Aug. 30, 2009, when one of the biggest boats in the fleet, the Wenatchee, had a “hard landing” at the Colman Dock in Seattle, injuring a passenger and causing more than $300,000 in damage.
As required, the crew was promptly subjected to drug and alcohol testing. Later, WSDOT officials reported that drugs and alcohol were not an issue.
No one disputes it. But, then, no one else has had access to the test results.
The beauty of a truly free and open society is that citizens don’t have to just take a government agency’s word for reassurances that all is aboveboard. They can check it out for themselves. That’s what Washington state’s 34-year-old open-government legislation – a civic asset as boast-worthy as the ferry system – is meant to ensure.
But government agencies being government agencies, every so often, something goes wrong in that arena, too.
An Olympia-based conservative think tank, the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, wanted to see those test results and submitted the appropriate requests. What it got was a set of documents so heavily redacted there was no way to confirm the department’s statements. Citing a federal regulation that prohibits release of drug and alcohol testing records, WSDOT claimed the blanked-out information was exempt from state disclosure laws.
The foundation sued, but a Thurston County Superior Court backed the state agency. Now, the question heads to the state Court of Appeals, where the foundation will have the support of the national Society of Professional Journalists. The partnership between a political policy organization and an association of news media professionals is a reminder that access concerns aren’t the province of a watchdog press alone.
Any government operation, especially one that’s entrusted with the safety of some 2 million passengers a month, must be subject to independent public oversight. If a federal agency can write a regulation that negates a critical state law, democratic participation could be sunk.