Regarding watchdogs, gadflies and online public records

(Post by reporter Chris Henry)

Today I wrote a story on a bill inspired by the Port of Manchester. The bill would require port-related measures to appear only on general election ballots, when election costs are lower. If you remember, the port incurred significant cost when a measure to reduce port commissioner terms from six to four years, submitted by petition, appeared on the April 2012 special election ballot. Manchester resident Dave Kimble, who collected petition signatures, had planned for the measure to run at the general election, but confusion over filing dates triggered the special election and the extra cost.

Kimble, as most in Manchester know, is a zealous port watcher. Although Kimble has run for port commissioner five times, he has never won. Nonetheless, or perhaps because of this, he takes an avid interest in port activities. Most recently, Kimble reported an alleged violation of shoreline construction rules to the state Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Kimble in December complained that the port had ceased to post minutes on its website. Port Contract Administrator Dennis O’Connell and I discussed the change in early February, when I called to ask for the agenda of an upcoming port meeting. O’Connell said that the port’s website had been maintained by a volunteer, who was hired elsewhere and is no longer available.

The port has no regular staff. O’Connell, who is manager of Manchester Water District, is contracted by the port to oversee grants and projects. Providing timely maintenance of the website without the volunteer is not realistic, O’Connell said.

Hard copy minutes from the previous meeting are available at each port meeting, at the Manchester Library and at the offices of the port contractor and port attorney. An email copy can be obtained by filing a public records request, which can be done by email.

The port commission voted in December to cease posting minutes online as of January 1. In their pre-vote discussion, commissioners cited “expense” and also noted that minutes are already available elsewhere.

Covering Manchester from the Kitsap Sun’s Bremerton office, I have found it convenient to check port minutes on the website. Now, I have to take the extra step of making a written records request. I’m fine with that. I just have to wonder which is more work for the port, posting the minutes on a website, or responding to individual requests.

There is no legal requirement that ports post minutes on their websites. Most ports — certainly the large ones and many of the small ones as well — maintain websites and post minutes. But a number — especially the smaller districts — do not, said Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association. There are 75 ports in the state ranging in size from the Port of Seattle, which is largest, to tiny ports with no staff or facilities.

A bill in last year’s legislative session aimed to promote dissemination of public information online, but it didn’t survive, Johnson said.

“The purpose of the bill was essentially to get more information on local government websites,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of little tiny jurisdictions. Some of them don’t have a website, believe it or not.”

That the ports association supports transparency of government was clear to me from my conversation with Johnson. On the flip side, the association supports proposed legislation that would protect government entities from individuals and groups that misuse the right to access public records.

The WPPA is part of a coalition of local governments that have in recent years advocated for “tools that will help limit the level of resources committed to meeting demands from serial requesters.”

Serial requesters deluge government agencies with records requests with the apparent intent to overwhelm agency resources and push government officials into noncompliance. One bill now under consideration in the House Rules Committee, HB 1128, takes a stab at curbing frivolous and or malicious records requests. The bill would allow local agencies to request a court to enjoin a public records request and allow the agency to adopt policies limiting the hours it devotes to records requests.

For advocates of sunshine laws, discussion of such bills could be seen as the first step down a slippery slope. On the flip side, no reasonable person wants to see taxpayer’s money intentionally squandered. The line between watchdog and gadfly is a thin one.

3 thoughts on “Regarding watchdogs, gadflies and online public records

  1. As you said, Chris, it is a very slippery slope to limit public records requests. It concerns me that because of the abuse of a few, the rights of responsible citizens to serve as ‘watch dogs’ may be limited.

    In all the time that I have been involved in local issues, I have only had to file a public records request three or four times. However, I believe the easy access has been because of the sunshine laws, not despite them. I am usually able to get the information without a request because the agencies want to appear transparent. Without strong sunshine laws, government entities will be less inclined to be helpful in public records requests.

    I remember many years ago when I asked for some information from the school district (in the 1990’s). It was met with, “What does it matter to you”. That was when I learned to cite the sunshine laws (which are actually very clear that I don’t have to say why I want to see the records).

    I’m not sure what the answer is to abusive requests. However, I am very concerned that legitimate requests will get caught up in the net of attempting to curtail the abusers.

  2. Watch Dog

    “One who serves as a guardian or protector against waste, loss, or illegal practices.”

    Gadfly

    “A persistent irritating critic that acts as a provocative stimulus; a goad.”

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