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Coalition for Open Government seeks to improve transparency

Washington’s Coalition for Open Government (WCOG) hosted its annual conference at the Mercer Island Community and Events Center, drawing journalists, “citizen reporters” and a host of guest speakers to both reinforce the importance of access to public records and discuss the evolving policy around it. Michael Schwab of the Sunshine Committee, keynoted the event. The meeting came just as a new bill passed in Olympia to make sure government officials understand the laws regarding access to public records.

Particular attention was paid to an ordinance passed by Kirkland city council last year, which identifies public records as a fundamental city service, much like putting out fires. The ordinance, in effect this winter, establishes a budget for responding to records requests and has been closely watched by other local and state governments. Yet, each year more exemptions are tacked on, said Schwab, further constricting the Washington State Public Records Act RCW 42.56.

Records requests can also be time consuming and costly. A story by the Mercer Island Reporter found that in the first three quarters of 2013 the Mercer Island School District alone received 24 public records requests to the tune of $25,000.

Many tactics can keep public records out of the hands of those demanding them. Laurie Rogers first began investigating the Spokane School District when she saw her daughter struggling in math. Despite requesting the breakdown of levy funds and other details, Rogers reports that the district still hasn’t changed its ways. The former WCOG award recipient was joined by Mike Baker and Mike Carter of The Seattle Times, who described their experiences reporting on Blackwater and the Seattle Police Department, respectively.

The Legislature passed Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s open government training bill last week, sending it the governor to be signed. When it goes into effect on Jul. 1 it will improve public disclosure practices and reduce the volume of lawsuits with mandatory training. A 2012 Auditor’s Office report found that most open government related issues are due to insufficient training.

 

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