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Editor's note: The May 10 stories on open records are the result of a partnership between the Daily Record and the Central Washington University Observer student newspaper and the school's journalism department.

In addition to the May 10 stories the Observer has articles on how departments at Central Washington University responded to public records requests.

The series concludes on May 11 with a report on how various Ellensburg city offices dealt with similar requests.

ELLENSBURG - There are times when a journalist has an unfair advantage against the ordinary citizen. Gathering governmental records is one of them - even though it shouldn't be.

The "average Joe or Jane" has just as much a right to see what his or her government is up to as anyone else. Because of that, the state of Washington adopted a series of open records laws 30 years ago, starting with 10 exemptions. These laws are designed to promote governmental transparency, but legislators have since carved out 300 exemptions.

"Access to governmental information through public records are one of the three ways that citizens have control over government," said Washington State Special Assistant Attorney General Greg Overstreet, whose job is to help the public get access to documents and to help state agencies and local governments with compliance. "There are numerous examples of really important issues, like police or teacher misconduct, (coming out) through public records."

As part of a public affairs reporting class, Central Washington University students split into three teams, requesting records of several city and county agencies and Central departments on April 10-11.

"Citizens are our best watchdogs for open records and open meetings issues, since they're dealing with it every day," said Mindy Chambers, communications manager for the Washington State Auditor's Office. "Open records engender confidence with the public, whether they agree or disagree with the office."

Five student-auditors made up the county team, and they went to six agencies requesting a total of 10 records. The results were encouraging.

Half of the records were obtained the day they were requested. Two student-auditors were re-directed from one agency to another, and one was given guidelines on how to streamline requests for their particular agency. Three of those records were eventually disclosed.

The county prosecutor's office and the Kittitas County Superior Court weren't able to comply with the two records requests they received because they don't keep the statistics and analyses that were asked for. (Agencies are only required to produce documents that already exist; they aren't required to create them.) But a further request for records from the prosecutor's office that would have let the student-auditor do his own analysis prompted the office to cite privacy exemptions as a reason to deny disclosure, which an open records attorney said was off base.

Of the five city agencies and six Central Washington University departments that were audited, all had produced the requested records by Friday, May 4, except for the Central Public Safety office, and the Central Student Affairs office, where the request also involved issues of criminal activity on campus.

"It sounds to me like the audit shows the agencies are, by and large, educated about their responsibilities under the act, and, on top of that, showed a willingness to comply to the fullest extent," said Tracy LeRoy, associate attorney with Witherspoon, Kelley, Davenport & Toole, P.S. in Spokane. "That's how it's supposed to work - people are supposed to make requests and get answers."

LeRoy wasn't surprised that the requests involving the prosecutor's office and crime-related issue proved problematic.

"The most complex requests involve police and sheriff's offices because there tends to be overlaps of exemptions and special issues," she said.

Overstreet also said he was pleased with the results.

"The trend is encouraging, state and local governments are providing more training in records law," Overstreet said. "The Attorney General and the State Auditor, who are from different parties, are both focusing on the importance of this issue."

In 2001, 25 newspapers took part in a statewide test of these laws, asking for four records from all 39 counties. Unless pressed the requesters did not identify themselves as journalists - identification is not a requirement under Washington's law - and they tried to see how anyone walking off the street would fare.

Responses to the 2001 records audit varied depending on the county and the type of records requested. Kittitas County's performance was passable, although not stellar. County officials complied with a request for home values, the school superintendent's contract and a crime incident report. After three trips for restaurant inspections, the County Health Department told the auditor that the records weren't public, and that attorneys told the department not to release the information. The Sheriff's department denied requests for a list of registered sex-offenders.

"There are roughly 2,500 governmental agencies operating in the state and they all vary in resources and culture," Overstreet said. "Some are very good at compliance, and some view records requests as bothersome."

The Attorney General's office also created a set of Model Rules for open records laws - which amounts to a best practices guide for both requesters and offices. Combined with the rules, statewide visits by the Attorney General's office and some of the high-profile information that's come out of the rules remind people of the importance of the records, Overstreet said. There has also been a Sunshine Commission created by the Attorney General to reform some of the exemptions.

"Some of the exemptions make sense, like not releasing prison escape routes, while others are the result of heavy lobbying by interest groups," LeRoy said. "So we're hoping the Sunshine Commission looks at those issues, and reverses the trend of lawmakers to increase the amount of exemptions."

The Auditors Office went through its own records and placed many of them online to better fit into the Model Rules, Chambers said.

The office is in the middle of its own statewide records audit. Auditors asked for 10 records from 30 state and city agencies. The Office is still in the process of making requests and tabulating the responses.

"Washington is exceptionally proactive in dealing with public records," Chambers said. "But there have been pockets of poor response."

See how other departments fared in public records requests:

See how other departments fared in public records requests:


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