Kittitas County’s requirement that employees sign confidentiality agreement makes sense for a few of the stated, specific defined purposes.
Those commissioners identified a couple of those purposes. They include limiting the access and release of personnel information and limiting employees from accessing information not pertinent to their jobs or departments.
That sounds appropriate, but it needs to be noted that release of personnel information is already restricted. There are existing rules governing access to personnel information. It is not open to public review.
Modern information technology makes it easier for employees to access county information. There is a connection that did not exist when each office kept its own filing cabinets secured in the back room. The technology is designed for ease of access so there need to be rules governing what is appropriate for access and release.
Beyond those common sense restrictions emphasizing application and enforcement of existing rules, the confidentiality agreement ventures into problematic territory.
Wording in the confidentiality agreement mentions financial information. All expenditures by public entities are open public records. It is the best way to the public to track the actions of public bodies.
The problem with a confidentiality agreement is not what is written on paper but what is put in practice. There is a real threat that an employee who signs a confidentiality agreement feels he or she should not release any information, slowing, if not blocking, legitimate requests. It is human nature to feel a sense of possession over information under a person’s control, even if that information belongs to the public and not the office for which the person works.
It would serve a purpose if the county required county employees to sign a release of public information agreement that emphasized that almost all the information, outside of limited exceptions, are the public’s business.
Kittitas County and its cities fare well in public record checks — an exercise when all the agencies are contacted and asked for a public records. There are always examples of records not released properly but those instances tend to be isolated and not systematic.
The city of Ellensburg is exemplary in that regard. A request for public information is met with the public information requested.
Kittitas County is pretty good. Some offices are outstanding — the Kittitas County Auditor’s Office comes to mind.
The county commissioners likely are responding to a real concern, but by putting this measure in motion they now have the responsibility to ensure it is kept to its limited purposes. The default response to a request for public information should be the release of public information. The exemptions need to be defined and detailed and comply with state public record law.
A confidentiality agreement in a public sector job is an extremely limited-use document. The first time it is used for purposes beyond its scope, the commissioners will need to take action to ensure it is the last.