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AG visits to discuss public disclosure laws

Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna visited Kitsap County on Tuesday night, in the first of 12 statewide meetings that will help to shape the laws governing public documents.

“Transparency and accountability are central to government,” McKenna said to the crowd gathered in Bremerton’s Olympic College Theater. “If we don’t know what government is up to, then it can cause a conflict.”

McKenna’s office is required to complete a policy document covering all aspects of public records facts and procedures by Feb. 1. Accordingly, the process is conducted in public.

Shortly after the last scheduled meeting, Oct. 11 in Seattle, his office will post a draft document on its web site.

“We are required to draft a set of model rules as to how both requesters and agencies can be more successful,” McKenna said. “We need to develop guidelines and best practices and solve the problem through a consensus model.”

The event provided an example of coincidental timing. While the topics discussed are intended as generic research, it came in the middle of a public records controversy regarding documents relating to a proposed racetrack near the Bremerton National Airport.

So these topics, specifically non-disclosure documents signed by county officials, were the subject of several questions.

While the only elected county official present was Assessor Jim Avery, several county employees were in attendance.

McKenna said the non-disclosure process needs to be examined and defined, but did not think it represented an important issue. In all his years of government service, he said he had never come into contact with any such document.

This assertion was challenged by Kitsap County Administrative Services director Ben Holland, who said the state required him to sign a non-disclosure before he could view tax statistics.

“If I didn’t sign that paper, they would have never let me see the information,” Holland said.

Technology played a large part in the discussion, with the outlining of a “perfect world“ with regard to public documents. Here, all information would be available on-line, free of charge, to anyone with an Internet connection.

Those without a computer could go to a library. And public agencies would save the infinite, unprofitable staff hours needed to retrieve the information.

Speaking after the meeting, administrative coordinator Don Burger said the county’s new imaging system now in development will solve many of the access problems.

Even so, Jane Reese of the League of Women Voters feels that “you can’t assume that everyone has computer access. And a lot of people still don’t feel comfortable with a computer.”

On-line data also provides half of the picture. It is not enough to have data placed on-line, it must provide an index that provides access everything in the databse.

“The problem goes beyond public records,” said Vivian Henderson, executive director of the Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners. “It’s becoming more and more of a battle to get government to embrace the citizens and make sure they understand the laws they’re passing. The government does not want to include the public.”

While all public servants profess to support the idea of open government, they are often stymied by the process. One county office has 1,000 pages of documents ordered by a citizen but never picked up.

Department of Community Development Director Cindy Baker has said the increased disclosure requests have placed a strain on her staff, which is already stretched to the limit.

“These requests cause county workers to lose some of their efficiency,” said Information Services Director Bud Harris, who was not at the meeting. “A lot of people have trouble doing their job if they always have to ask themselves what is and what is not a public document.”

Harris said there needs to be a series of “checks and balances” to make sure that requests by a small minority don’t bog down a majority of agencies.

In addition to the public forum, comments are to be solicited online at www.atg.wa.gov for the duration of the report’s preparation.

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