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Public records regs get clarification

As Kitsap County officials await the results of state Attorney General Rob McKenna’s investigation of possible public records mishandling in connection with the recruitment of a NASCAR racetrack to the region, they are already planning a strategy to prevent any similar incidents.

“Everyone in county government needs to know at least the basics of public records law,” said County Administrator Cris Gears. “Each department needs at least one employee who is fully trained about public disclosure and records retention. People need to know what a public document is and what needs to be saved.”

The policy results from a Department of Public Works employee’s preparation of maps for Kitsap Economic Development Council executive director David Porter, who asked the employee to sign a confidentiality agreement. The employee then allegedly neglected to retain a copy of the map or of Porter’s written request, which obliterated the required paper trail.

“The material they gave me wasn’t sensitive but the fact that I was asking for it was,” Porter has said.

Possibilities are now wide open. The extremes: The AG could find no wrongdoing, or could send the employee to jail for breaking the law.

On Wednesday, Gears approached the county commissioners and suggested assembling a task force to examine and interpret the law, with the ultimate purpose of preparing a one-page document that tells employees everything they need to know in order to stay within the law.

“We want to comply with all the rules, regulations and laws,” Gears said. “In some cases, failure to comply can be a criminal issue. We want to be as open and honest as possible. So a half-dozen folks on this task force will identify all the critical issues.”

Gears is currently recruiting members of the task force, for which he plans to serve as chair. Purchasing manager R’Lene Orr, who handles most Freedom of Information (FOI) Act requests for documents has already signed on. Additionally, it will contain elected officials and department heads.

Kitsap County Treasurer Barbara Stephenson has already volunteered, and Sheriff Steve Boyer will also be represented. Gears hopes to hold a meeting before the end of July. It will then develop a “cheat sheet” and pass its recommendations to the commissioners if any action is required.

Orr doesn’t see the need for action, since the task force’s purpose is to clarify existing records law.

“We need to understand exactly what a public document is,” Gears said. “If we are in a meeting and someone writes down a sandwich order, is that a public document? Probably not, but we’re not completely sure.”

And what about drafts that are revised beyond recognition or amended with sticky tabs? The task force, hopefully, will be able to discuss all these scenarios and put them into the proper perspective.

The task force plans to define all possibilities within the context of the law — which is actually defined by a two-paragraph statute.

In short, a public record is “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of government or the performance of any governmental or proprietary function prepared, owned, used or readied by a state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.”

The public also needs to be aware of this law when communicating with elected officials. For example, anyone who sends an e-mail to a county commissioner about a personal matter could see it exposed as part of an information request made in regard to an unrelated matter.

Gears said the law is too complicated, with all the existing statutes and solutions fitting into a 20-page book that employees don’t have the time to read.

He compares this to an electronic gadget with a 200-page instruction manual that also has a cardboard directory of the most essential terms.

Gears said the specter of an investigation has already bred uncertainty in county employees, “who aren’t really sure what they can get rid of.”

With the confidentiality agreement in mind, they have already learned they need to consult an attorney before signing anything.

The result, he said, “will give people the tools to understand the situations they will face the most often.”

Attention to the public records law began shortly after the ISC announcement last month it intended to build an 80,000-seat raceway in Kitsap County. Indianola activist Charlie Burrow responded by filing a request for documents, but didn’t receive everything he wanted. He subsequently used the omissions as his in rallying cry for more open government and closer adherence to the public records regulations.

During this transitional period, Gears is advising employees to consult their superiors or the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s office if they have any questions, and to keep a document if they have any doubt.

Still, he hopes upcoming clarification will make life easier for everyone.

“I want to make it so that county employees can feel free to throw out their napkin after lunch,” he said.

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