Our big bark watches over openness

Executive editorJune 10, 2012 

Liebe is the Peterson family’s 5-year-old German shepherd.

Our youngest son chose her name. It means “love” in German, and was a reflection of her ancestral roots and the sweet nature of the little black puppy.

Liebe is still sweet, but now at 80-some pounds, she also is an imposing watchdog and takes her role seriously.

Unlike our old dog, a tail-wagging Laborador who spent entire days asleep on her bed, Liebe is on patrol constantly. She pads from room to room, ears up, looking out the doors and windows.

A short woof tells visitors she’s watching them. A bark signals a possible threat. She growls and bares her teeth when she feels the need to defend us.

The News Tribune tries to be that kind of watchdog – always patrolling, friendly most of the time, but ready to defend the community when necessary, particularly over matters of government accessibility and transparency.

Sean Robinson’s story on today’s front page is an example of the TNT playing that watchdog role.

Most often, we find government accessibility problems while reporting a story. We’ll ask for supporting reports or emails and be inappropriately denied. It’s a journalist’s job to know what we’re entitled to and know how to fight back.

Sometimes that’s with a follow-up phone call from an editor. In extreme cases, we bare our teeth, hire an attorney and sue.

We press that hard for two reasons. One is simply to get the information we need to write stories. The other is to keep the doors to government open for members of the public who might not understand their rights or have the means to fight back.

From time to time, as in today’s story, we strike out on patrol solely to test accessibility.

Robinson’s goal, in this case, was to test the smaller courts. District and municipal courts handle the lowest-level cases – traffic violations, misdemeanors and small claims. Most people who find themselves in court are involved in one of these.

He walked in and asked each of 22 courts for a routine report, one he knew existed and knew the public was entitled to. He gave his real name, but didn’t say he was a reporter, because he didn’t want to get special treatment. (If asked, he would have told them he was a reporter. We don’t allow staff members to lie about their identity.)

As expected, the results varied. Some courts closely followed disclosure rules, some followed most of the rules and some obviously violated state law.

In no cases, however, did Robinson believe clerks were purposefully hiding information. Rather they seemed unfamiliar with or ill-informed about the law. In the smallest courts, clerks were busy performing dozens of tasks in offices open only a few days a week and rarely had anyone ask for a record.

In the weeks since Robinson’s courthouse visits, the response has been heartening. Courts in violation have changed procedures, trained employees and promised to do better.

For the TNT, this watchdog patrol required only a bark or two.

A few years ago I joked with Robinson – a staff expert on open government, or sunshine, laws – that we should dub him Captain Sunshine. He could spring to the aid of people battling for records and then write about it in the paper.

We faced two obvious problems with that plan. First, it would give him less time for investigative reporting. And second, he would not look good in tights.

Instead, we suggest people learn more about their access rights.

A good place to start is the state attorney general’s website at www.atg.wa.gov. Click on the Government Accountability tab for more about open government laws and what to do if you’re wrongly denied access.

And in the meantime, we at the TNT will stay on open-government patrol.

Twitter: @TNTkpeterson

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