Glass Half Full

State Auditor’s probe of thirty Washington agencies’ compliance with public records law finds mostly “good” customer service along with “trouble spots.” Report also questions City of Spokane’s “attitude” and criticizes Thurston County’s overbearing monitoring of auditor’s investigation.

In a 17-month “performance audit” of thirty state and local government entities’ compliance with the state’s public records law, the Washington State Auditor’s Office found that “most..are providing good customer service” in responding to records requests but that “trouble spots” remain. Click here to download a copy of the report. A public hearing to review the City of Spokane’s portion of the audit will be conducted as part of the city council’s legislative session at 6 p.m. on Monday, June 9th.

The thirty entities selected for the probe included the City of Spokane, Spokane County, and the City of Spokane Valley. While the City of Spokane Valley and Spokane County finished at the top of the lists of the ten cities and ten counties included in the audit, the City of Spokane finished seventh among the ten cities in terms of actually providing records conforming to requests, and the timeliness of providing requested documents.

Moreover, the City of Spokane and Thurston County were singled out for conduct and responses that clearly rankled the auditor’s office.

“An organization’s attitude toward records requests is critical to how successfully an entity responds to public records requests,” the report emphasized. “In our interviews with entity staff, more than half responded that attitude and customer service are critical elements to a successful response. One entity–the City of Spokane–stated that the Public Records Act is an ‘unfunded mandate’ and placed it on its legislative agenda to modify the Act.”

The report’s authors also singled out Thurston County for criticism in the way the county responded to a request from the auditor’s office to interview the county’s public records officer.

“The Thurston County Commissioners refused our request to interview their Public Records Officer along and insisted that our interview be conducted in the presence of a County Commissioner. The Commissioner’s presence during the interview could have affected the interviewee’s ability to speak freely to the auditors.”

Thurston County was ranked next to last among the ten counties selected for the audit.

Notwithstanding the auditor’s formal efforts to interview records officers, the primary work of the investigation involved sending each of the 30 audited entities ten “unannounced” public records requests. Overall, the auditor’s team compiled results showing that 10 percent of the replies were “non-responsive” and another 2 percent “were either nonconforming or incomplete.” The performance audit was conducted pursuant to State Initiative 900 that passed in November of 2005 and gave the State Auditor additional authority to conduct performance audits on state entities to promote accountability and cost-effective uses of public resources.

Both the City of Spokane and Spokane County were singled out in another way. They are alone among the 30 entities included in the probe who do not, by policy, accept public records requests by electronic mail. Notwithstanding the policy, however, the auditor’s office noted that both actually did respond to e-mail requests for records that were submitted as part of the audit.

The City of Spokane is also cited in the report for agreeing, in 2006, to pay $299,000 to settle a case “involving its refusal to release public records regarding financing of a parking garage. At the time, it was thought to be the largest public records-related settlement in the history of the 1972 Public Records Act.”

That case was brought by the Center for Justice and co-counsel Tousley Brain Stephens on behalf of Camas Magazine journalists and involved documents the city withheld from Camas reporters during their long-running investigation of the River Park Square public/private partnership.

Posted June 2nd

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