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Originally published March 27, 2009 at 3:25 PM | Page modified March 27, 2009 at 5:10 PM

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Guest columnist

Seattle falls short of state open-government standards

The city of Seattle is not taking seriously the state auditor's 2008 report that criticized its handling of public-records requests. Guest columnist Trevor Griffey argues that city officials are interpreting the report narrowly and leaving the city vulnerable to lawsuits.

Special to The Times

ONE year ago, Washington state Auditor Brian Sonntag issued a report criticizing the city of Seattle for its handling of public-records requests as inefficient and falling short of the legal requirements of the state's Public Records Act. In only two of 10 cases did the city meet the state's compliance standards.

The biggest problem was that the city lacks central coordination for public-records requests: Each city department had its own rules for processing requests, and there was little if any coordination between departments. Requests made to the wrong department were returned to the requester, making public-disclosure requests unnecessarily time-consuming and confusing.

One year later, the city is not taking Sonntag's report seriously enough. Neither Mayor Greg Nickels nor the City Council have shown sufficient interest in harmonizing department rules and providing central oversight of those rules to ensure compliance with the Public Records Act. Instead, city officials are interpreting Sontag's report narrowly, and leaving the city vulnerable to lawsuits for noncompliance with state law.

Sonntag's report generated defensive replies from the mayor and City Council last year. They argued that once requesters resubmitted their inquiries to specific departments, Seattle's response was as good if not better than other local governments.

This year, the City Council is considering legislation that will reject most of the state's recommendations. Instead, at a recent City Council hearing on the subject, council members focused their attention on creating a single Web page to route records requests to different departments.

That's not good enough. Creating a Web page is a start, but it provides too little oversight over the compliance process. The logical result of this lax oversight can be seen in how the Seattle Police Department (SPD) handles public-records requests.

According to the city archivist, the SPD has never in its 150 year history transferred records to a state or municipal archive for historic preservation. Instead, the department maintains its own archive, without a publicly available catalog, which citizens can only access through time-consuming, hunt-and-peck public-disclosure requests.

The SPD maintains an extensive archive of criminal files, but discards basic documents by and about its own staff that are of historical value. According to the City Clerk's office, only its emergency-response unit has an up-to-date records-retention schedule, and the department no longer has anyone assigned to oversee that schedule.

The police department has a written policy that it "shall not discuss or impart" any documents it considers "sensitive" to the general public unless compelled by a lawsuit. This clearly violates the spirit if not the letter of state law. And it violates the transparency rules the department agreed to follow in 2002 as a result of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit.

The SPD claims to have a formal process for handling public-records requests, but that process is not written down. Its most recent operating procedures were created 10 years ago and, according to the department, are "outdated and no longer accurate."

The SPD's culture of secrecy is excessive. A survey of 270 law-enforcement agencies in the state of Washington conducted by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2007 found that the only ones less responsive to public-disclosure requests than the SPD were "police agencies operated by sovereign Indian tribes not subject to the state's open records law."

These problems are extreme examples of a broader compliance problem for which the Seattle City Council and mayor are ultimately responsible. Thankfully, City Council member Nick Licata is already taking positive steps to review how all city departments preserve and transmit historically valuable documents to the city's municipal archive. To further improve transparency, the city's Open Government Committee should pass new legislation to enable the city clerk, city archivist and city auditor greater oversight over how departments process public-disclosure requests.

Just letting city departments police themselves is not good enough.

Trevor Griffey is a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Washington.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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