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Let the sunshine in
Washington state’s public records act is a straightforward law designed to allow the public to see what its governments are up to. More often than not, though, the law is used by government officials to delay and block citizens from getting their hands on what is rightfully theirs.
We’ve had countless run-ins with the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office, Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue, the City of Bremerton, the Port of Bremerton, the Bremerton and Central Kitsap school districts and other agencies when it comes to requests for records.
There are exemptions to the law that allow agencies to deny requests. More often than not, though, agencies take as long as they possibly can to respond and try to shoehorn certain documents into an exempted status, rather than simply turning over what is plainly a public document.
A perfect example occurred last week when we asked CKFR for photos of Chief Scott Weninger, board chairman Dave Fergus and firefighter Ronny Smith. A few weeks prior to that, it took us more than a week to get a photo of Patrol Chief Gary Simspon from the sheriff’s office.
In the case of the fire district delay, we had to send a reporter to the lobby of the CKFR headquarters to take photographs of photographs of Weninger and Fergus hanging on the lobby wall. To get around the obstruction from the sheriff’s office, we had to scan a photograph from the Kitsap County Sheriff’s annual report.
In all of these cases, there are multiple publicly available photographs that have already been published and are circulating throughout Kitsap County. The photographs, in a format that is too small to reproduce on the pages of this newspaper, are also all over the Internet. But, rather than taking a minute or two to email us photos we can print, the agencies instead insisted that we file a records request so they can drag their collective feet and drum up any possible reasons they can think of to say, “no.”
It shouldn’t be this way. Take a look at the what the law actually says (emphasis added):
“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected. In the event of conflict between the provisions of this chapter and any other act, the provisions of this chapter shall govern.”
A little bit of common sense goes a long way when it comes to the public records act. Bureaucrats playing games, on the other hand, does nothing but frustrate the public and leads to unnecessary acrimony.