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Sat., Oct. 23, 2010

Editorial: Public needs to demand return to open records

“I think it’s shocking and appalling that an entire branch of government has exempted itself from the Public Records Act,” said Timothy Note, a judicial candidate who tried to get the attendance record of his opponent, Spokane County District Court Judge Debra Hayes.

We weren’t shocked. We’ve been complaining for years about the hundreds of exemptions that have been carved from a law that was overwhelmingly adopted by voters in 1972. So we merely reacted with a weary nod.

The media are accused of self-interest in calling for more open government. Public officials aren’t apt to appreciate the watchdog role of the press since they’re the folks being observed. During candidate interviews, the editorial board routinely queries candidates about their stances on open records and transparency. Most of them are adept at talking a good game, but few of them adopt the issue as part of their campaigns.

It won’t be until the general public sustains outrage that candidates will begin moving this issue up on their priority lists. If this editorial is like the scores of others we’ve written on the topic, it won’t generate much public response.

“Oh? Open records? That’s a media problem.”

Candidate Note wanted to discover how many days off each District Court judge had taken. His request was denied. As it turns out, Judge Hayes had missed many days, but we can’t really fault her. She had been ill and was grieving over the death of a son. But what if a judge didn’t have a good excuse and the court wasn’t inclined to reveal that information?

Suddenly, it’s everyone’s problem, because taxpayers are paying a $141,700-a-year salary to an absentee judge and cases are moving more slowly through the system. That could happen at District Court.

Judges recently decided to quit distributing daily lineup sheets that tell the public which judges are assigned to particular dockets. Instead of sending out a list to 50 to 60 people who might need to know, one copy is kept at a judge’s front desk. In any event, judges concede that those sheets do not establish whether a judge is at work on a particular day.

Hayes did release her attendance information, but the court administrator noted that this act was voluntary. In other words, she could have said no, because the Legislature exempted courts from the Public Records Act. Then again, lawmakers have exempted themselves, too.

These blanket exclusions give officials the opportunity to weigh the motives of requestors before releasing information. That should never be a feature of open government for the obvious reason that embarrassing information will be kept secret. Except in rare instances, citizens shouldn’t have to prove they have a sufficient reason to see a public document.

But self-interest will remain a key determining factor as long as the public continues to yawn at secrecy.

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Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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