Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Don't Shoot the Messenger

When it comes to free speech, it appears that the constitution and laws are not quite enough to protect whistleblowers from public condemnation and public criticism.

Recently, a local resident, Tim Paxton, submitted a public disclosure request to the Skagit County Council of Governments for the newly elected Mayor of Bellingham's internet use from July to October of 2007, back when Mayor Pike was still working as Skagit County’s Council of Government Transportation Director.

Mayor Pike tells us in a Skagit Valley Herald article dated January 11th, that, like many people, he did "online banking and responded to personal correspondence through a web-based e-mail service during his lunch hour.”SCOG’s attorney, Kevin McGoffin, told Skagit Valley Herald reporter, Marta Murvosh that SCOG has a duty to review Pike’s web history to ensure that personal information, such as passwords or bank account numbers aren’t released to the public.

I wonder why this is even an issue, when the majority of public agencies have written policies that prohibit personal use of publicly owned equipment. No one authorized Pike to put his personal passwords on his work computer. All he has to do is change those passwords if he is worried about privacy. It would be prudent to do that anyway, since SCOG will be hiring a new Transportation Director.

Critics state that Paxton has somehow crossed the line by asking SCOG to produce Pike’s former web browsing history. But Paxton believes that Pike was posting comments on local blogs during working hours. If these allegations are true, then Pike owes the taxpayers of Skagit County, (his former employer), an apology for the misuse of publicly owned equipment.

SCOG claims that it does not have a specific policy addressing personal use of its equipment, although Kelley Moldstad, SCOG executive director, told Murvosh, "like other public agencies, it’s generally expected that SCOG employees use the web for SCOG business."

SCOG’s attorney disagrees with the Attorney General’s office (The Attorney General's Office wrote a letter to SCOG requesting that it comply with the public disclosure request) that SCOG computer records are a public record. SCOG's attorney claims that public records must be identifiable, and that a government agency is not obligated to create a new record. Which in my opinion begs the question - Paxton didn’t request a copy of a “new" record; he requested a copy of the existing record of Pike's web browsing history from July through October of 2007.

Recently, Washington State was issued an “F” in a national study that reviewed each state’s compliance with the Federal Open Meetings Act. I tend to agree with the Attorney General. SCOG should turn over the records, (with redactions of personal account numbers and passwords as required by law) so Paxton can review the web history and determine if Pike was using publicly owned equipment to post campaign comments on blogs during his regularly scheduled working hours.

Many Journalists depend on public disclosure requests as a tool to gather facts for articles and stories. So let’s close with this thought, “When laws, regulations, courts and the Constitution itself are not enough to protect freedom of speech and freedom of the press, there is more than just good government at risk.” Courtesy of Paul K. McMasters. First Amendment Ombudsman at the First Amendment Center.

Link to Skagit Valley Herald Article:

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