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County Council adopts reforms for public records disclosure

Summary

Legislation increases open government policies and reduces risks of costly lawsuits

Story

The Metropolitan King County Council gave its unanimous approval today to reform the County’s public disclosure process, expanding transparency and openness in government and easing the disclosure process for the public.

The legislation was introduced by Councilmembers Bob Ferguson and Reagan Dunn in the wake of two high-profile public records cases involving King County. Earlier this year, the Washington Supreme Court held that the trial court had not imposed steep enough penalties against King County for failing to provide documents concerning the public financing of what is now Qwest Field. The maximum penalty, if applied, would be more than $800,000. The case took an interesting twist, however, when the court subsequently withdrew its decision following allegations of conflict of interest against one of the justices. The final outcome has yet to be determined.

King County settled another case this year for $225,000 involving an allegation that requested documents regarding the 2004 governor’s election were not produced in a timely fashion.

“It was time to put the County’s public disclosure practices under a microscope. When we did, we found many ways to improve transparency and simplify our public records process for the public,” said Councilmember Ferguson.

“Transparency in government is always what we should be striving for and providing standardized disclosure forms will assist our citizens in accessing their government and its decisions,” said Councilmember Dunn. “I am confident that by incorporating the recommendations of our state Attorney General we are strengthening our commitment to an open process at all levels of government.”

The legislation incorporates recommendations from Attorney General Rob McKenna’s model rules for public records retention and disclosure, the Washington State Auditor, and a work group consisting of both County Council and Executive staff and the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney. It requires:

• Each county agency to develop a standard request form and post the form on its Web site, making it easier for citizens to complete records requests,

• Each agency to clearly identify its public records officer to ensure that citizens know exactly whom to contact. Contact information for the officer will be posted at the agency’s public service counters and on its website,

• If an agency declines to disclose a document on the basis that it is exempt under state law, the agency must provide a written explanation of how the claimed exemption applies to the document being withheld. This requirement allows the public to determine whether the exemption claim is valid,

• Annual reports to be submitted to the County Council tracking each agencies’ records requests and responsiveness,

• If an agency does not have all of the records a citizen is seeking, County employees should direct the public to the appropriate agency,

• Each agency should provide maximum guidance and information on their websites about making public records requests,

• Each agency should post commonly requested documents on their websites.

“We have created these reforms to make it easier for citizens to obtain public information on the workings of King County government,” said Council Chair Dow Constantine. “Any County agency that seeks to withhold a document will rightly be required to explain the exemption applied and defend its use.”

“King County’s records belong to the people of King County,” said Councilmember Larry Phillips. “This legislation will make it easier for the public to access the documents they want to review.”

In addition to providing greater access to government documents, the adopted legislation will help prevent future lawsuits by setting standards for the handling of public records requests.

“Avoiding public records disputes allows us to use scarce tax dollars to pay for core government services, not costly fines and legal fees,” said Ferguson.

King County is required under the state Public Records Act to provide citizens with access to public records upon request. The law defines a public record as “any state or local record relating to the performance and conduct of government.” Public records may be in the form of a written record, report, handwritten note or memo, e-mail, picture, disk, maps, or other medium.


Read the legislation
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