City should focus on openness, not limiting access
I am concerned about the proposed changes to Snoqualmie’s Public Record Act process. Putting a cap on the number of hours of staff time allowed for providing requested records opens the process to abuse by the city administration, and makes it easy for the administration to block public access to our government records.
Washington State’s Public Records Act (RCW 42.56) sets the tone for this important issue: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”
I fully understand that large quantities of requests for public records can consume a lot of staff time, and we taxpayers bear the cost of that staff time. However, we must err on the side of openness in our government. We must not risk enabling the administration to hide their actions from the people of the city when it is embarrassing or inconvenient for the people to know.
In proposing these changes, the city administration argues that too much staff time is consumed, and implies (by calling out several citizens by name in the staff report supporting the ordinance) that a few local residents are abusing the public records process. A log of 2018 and 2019 public records requests is included with the staff report. I read the entire log, and I found that the large increase in the number of requests in 2018 is almost entirely the result of actions by the city administration. Some examples:
• Citizens looking into the since-admitted ethics violations by Dan Marcinko, who headed Parks and Public Works for the city until July 1 (the largest part of the city budget, including a $32 million bond in 2018). If it were not for citizens looking into this, Mr. Marcinko’s violations would never have been investigated and proven.
• Records related to the city’s processes for managing contracts (which a review by an external consultant found to be deficient).
• Records about why the city hired police officer Nick Hogan even when they knew that he had been fired by the Tukwila Police Department for multiple incidents of excessive use of force.
• At every city council meeting, the council must approve city payments. For a period of time in 2018, the administration would not let Councilmember Peggy Shepard review details for those payments. They insisted she could only see the documentation if she filed a public records request for it. The city later reversed that decision, and now lets her review the payments. However, they still resist answering her questions about specific payments.
Another concern I saw in the logs is that the staff time noted for some requests appears to be more than one would reasonably expect. That may be an indication of antiquated systems that make it difficult to retrieve records, or maybe inefficient processes. However, it also shows that if there is a cap on how much time is spent on requests, then the administration can easily “bury” an embarrassing request by simply over-recording the time and then saying they can’t provide the requested record.
The city administration has at times acted in ways that raise doubts, and in other cases are clearly wrong (such as the ethics violation). These types of actions are the main reason some citizens have a hard time trusting the administration and find it necessary to look more deeply into areas of concern. The solution is not to limit citizens’ visibility into city government, but rather to fully embrace openness. If that openness reveals things that are not as they should be, then make the changes to improve – don’t hide it.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: A public hearing on proposed changes will be held on July 22. Scheel is the husband of Councilmember Peggy Shepard.)