We’re shining lights on government
KAREN PETERSON; executive editor
Sometimes sunshine is hard to come by.
Washingtonians tend to feel that way this time of year, and journalists feel that way from time to time.
Today marks the end of Sunshine Week, sponsored annually by the American Society of News Editors – of which I’m a member. Its intent is to highlight the importance of the public’s right to know – through open meetings and access to documents – what their government leaders are up to. Journalists shine light on what could become the dark corners of government secrecy.
Reporters in our newsroom routinely attend public meetings and request public documents. That way we can inform you about decisions that affect your life even if you don’t attend those meetings or seek those documents yourself.
Generally our government agencies cooperate fully. But a number of times in the past year, we’ve had to turn the light up on local government officials who were withholding information that should be public.
Today’s front-page story on the Cheney Stadium roof is based on the minutes of meetings between city officials and construction bidders. The minutes are public documents, but we didn’t get them the first time we asked.
Our initial request to the City of Tacoma was for “any and all written minutes and/or audio recordings of meetings about the Cheney Stadium renovation/upgrade project involving project bidders and/or contractors and representatives of the City of Tacoma from Oct. 1, 2009 to present.”
Four days later, on Feb. 18, the city provided reporter Lewis Kamb with minutes from meetings in 2010, after the winning bidder was selected, and said there were no additional documents. Kamb had learned from another source that the 2009 documents existed, so he asked again on March 10 and received the rest of the paperwork shortly thereafter.
If he hadn’t known those minutes existed, we wouldn’t have received them. A city clerk called the omission a “training issue.”
We have tussled for months with the Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer’s office over records we requested last August.
On Aug. 13, as he was researching his investigative series on Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam, reporter Sean Robinson requested meeting minutes, emails and hard-drive documents from Washam and his assistants, Gretchen Borck and Albert Ugas.
The state public records act requires an agency to “respond” in five business days to the request by either giving us records, telling us when we should expect to receive them or rejecting our request citing a public records exemption. We received a small set of meeting minutes Oct. 28, but no word of when the remaining documents would come. On Nov. 24, we sent a follow-up letter to the assessor’s office. Nothing. On Dec. 30, our attorney sent a formal letter, and we sought assistance from Pierce County’s public records ombudsman.
The assessor’s office provided additional meeting minutes Jan. 7, and we received more documents throughout February. We are still working to be sure we have them all.
Twice in the past year, we went to the state Supreme Court to fight for openness. We and other news organizations argued that Pierce County Superior Court judges erred when they sealed documents related to persons alleged to have helped Lakewood police killer Maurice Clemmons.
Law enforcement officials were ready to hand over the routine documents when Judge Susan Serko stopped them, saying she did so to ensure a fair trial for those charged. The Supreme Court overruled her in a unanimous decision, and we wrote a story about information contained in the reports.
We are still awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court in our 2009 lawsuit filed after visiting King County Superior Court Judge James Cayce shut the courtroom door on TNT reporter Adam Lynn. Lynn was covering the case of Pierce County Superior Court Judge Michael Hecht, later convicted of buying sex from one young man and threatening to kill another.
Cayce was overseeing the video-recorded testimony of a key witness in an open courtroom when Lynn showed up. At the request of the defense attorney, Cayce told Lynn to leave and declared the proceeding a closed deposition.
We argued that at the very least, the law required Cayce to hold a hearing on the matter and give reasons for the closure.
Fighting for government openness may seem tangential to the work we do, but many times it’s the only way we can get the information needed to tell our stories.
It’s also the law.
And we believe holding officials accountable keeps government open not only for us, but for everyone.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434