Monday, December 17, 2007

Sunshine Laws

A Washington State public audit of local public agencies found dozens of government employees who violated state law by witholding documents that the law says they must release.

The audit was the first of it's kind to examine Washington's Public Records Act, which defines a public record as any document prepared, owned, used or kept by a state or local agency. These records are presumed to be public, unless specifically exmpted from public disclosure by law.

In 1972, the Washington State Legislature declared, "Government isn't a secret business or club." It belongs to the citizens, and the public has every right to access records and participate in government proceedings.

Meanwhile, police and sheriff department's denied public requests for information regarding property crimes at least 55% of the time, while sheriff's departments refused about 16% of the requests to produce lists of sex offenders. Health Departments denied about 8% of the requests for restaurant inspections. The lack of compliance with public disclosure requests recently gained the state of Washington a "F" in a national study on compliance with sunshine laws.

Governor Gregoire told media that the lack of compliance is due to agencies being understaffed and untrained. That filling public disclosure requests is resource intense and costly.

State law says that in releasing the information, agencies are not allowed to ask the person making the request why they are requesting the information. If parts of a document are exempt from disclosure, the agency may black out only the information that can be exempted. It can not withhold the entire document if only certain parts are exempt.

What are your thoughts regarding "sunshine laws." Do you think that public disclosure laws place too heavy a burden on state agencies and law enforcement officials? Or, does the media and public have a right to access government documents?

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