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Sept. 18, 2021

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Other Papers Say: ESD flouts public records laws

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The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:

Lynn Brewer should not have had to hire an attorney to chase down public records regarding delayed unemployment claims payments. That she did is only one recent example of barriers to public access that must be removed.

In June 2020, the Kittitas County business consultant requested copies of emails discussing the delays between Gov. Jay Inslee, then-Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine and staff over an 11-week period. With some exceptions, such communication is public record under state law. But when department records manager Robert Page advised it would take months to honor her request, Brewer hired an attorney. In mid-November, not having received a single record, she took the ESD to court.

In court documents, Brewer’s attorney Joan Mell, who serves on the board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, alleged that the department acted in bad faith, delaying the response in order to avoid scrutiny before the 2020 election. In a statement emailed to The Seattle Times last week, ESD’s new Commissioner Cami Feek blamed an exceptionally busy year.

But depositions from Page and former ESD chief data privacy officer Rebekah O’Hara reveal the beleaguered department compounded the workload with cumbersome protocols, which ESD Assistant Commissioner Shawn Murinko agreed to discontinue as part of a June 11 agreement to settle Brewer’s lawsuit.

The department has also hired more staff and purchased new software that will make it easier to convert files and redact appropriately confidential information, according to department spokeswoman Clare DeLong.

But it shouldn’t have taken a lawsuit for the department to make such commonsense changes. Open government advocates like Mell say this is just one example among many of state agency or local government records response practices in need of improvement.

Mell points to a deposition she took in a case against Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, which revealed records procedures that apparently resulted in at least one incomplete response to a records request. When public-records unit supervisor Matthew Bell tried to replicate a search for records about L&I’s programs at the Northwest Detention Center, his efforts yielded previously undisclosed records. The state sets rules for how long public records must be stored, but individual record-holders develop their own protocols for searches and retrieval.

For public-records laws to have any meaning, the state must require higher standards for meeting the letter of the law. Lynn Brewer should have been able to see those documents. The people’s right to examine public government records and hold public officials accountable is undermined when they are destroyed, overlooked or require court action to obtain.

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