We believe in open government in all contexts

Executive editorMarch 10, 2013 

Today is a holiday as patriotic as the Fourth of July. It is Sunshine Sunday and the beginning of Sunshine Week, both of which promote open government.

The American Society of News Editors, of which I’m a member, helped launch Sunshine Week in 2005. “Though created by journalists,” the ASNE website states, “Sunshine Week is about the public’s right to know what its government is doing, and why.”

Questioning what our government is doing and why has led The News Tribune to some interesting places in recent weeks.

Reporter Sean Robinson asked those questions as he conceived of his story on today’s front page. He knew the state had cut funding for mental health treatment. He knew people with mental illnesses had committed sensational crimes in our community over the past year.

What role does Pierce County’s involuntary commitment court at Western State Hospital play? Robinson wondered. In 2012, the court held more than 1,600 commitment hearings tied to county residents. What did those hearings look like? Were they conducted fairly?

Robinson went there to find out.

Our glimpse inside commitment court is a rare one. Until 2011, such hearings were closed to the public. A decision by the state Supreme Court changed that. The majority found that closed commitment hearings violated the state constitution, which says: “Justice in all cases shall be administered openly, and without unnecessary delay.”

Robinson told Court Commissioner Craig Adams we intended to observe the hearings and report on what we saw. Adams formally granted our request, but asked us to protect the privacy of patients by using their initials. He allowed us to take photographs as long as the faces of patients were not identifiable.

We agreed, and Robinson attended numerous hearings in February and early March.

Without sitting in the courtroom, Robinson wouldn’t have seen the patients wheeled in on gurneys seeking resolution.

In that case, someone else opened the doors to government for us. In another matter, we are the ones fighting for openness.

Throughout January, we wrote stories about the breakdown in negotiations between the City of Tacoma’s Click cable TV network and Fisher Communications. The fray led to Fisher’s ABC affiliate KOMO being off the air for a month.

Click officials said Fisher was “squeezing a small cable company by raising rates more than 200 percent in two years.” A related Tacoma City Council resolution said Fisher’s retransmission fees were “significantly higher than rates agreed with any other major local broadcast station.”

A Feb. 1 settlement put Fisher channels back on the air, but did not disclose how much Click paid for them.

Click ratepayers were paying the retransmission fees, and TNT reporter Lewis Kamb wanted to analyze them, requesting copies of Click’s contract with broadcasters.

Click gave us most of the contracts, but blacked out the pricing numbers after broadcasters objected. Last week, five broadcasters lined up to sue Click and the TNT, saying their rates were trade secrets that should not be made public. We don’t see how a contract with a public agency can be kept secret.

I was served so many lawsuits in the TNT lobby last week, I offered to buy the process server a cup of coffee. We were in court Wednesday for a hearing on the matter. We will be back on Friday.

Our Sunshine efforts appear to have helped in a matter involving the Army.

After many press requests, the Army Friday disclosed its service-wide Behavioral Health Task Force report that is shaping reforms to psychiatric programs.

Army Deputy Secretary Samuel Retherford also disclosed plans to release investigations the Army launched last year into complaints about misdiagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder at Madigan Army Medical Center. The Army twice-denied our requests for those documents, and we published stories highlighting the Army’s secrecy.

We don’t have the reports yet, but Retherford’s pledge is a good sign.

Open government is good government.

The state Supreme Court’s 2011 majority opinion that opened the hearings at Western State underlines the rationale for open government with ringing words:

“The public bears witness and scrutinizes the proceedings, assuring they are fair and proper, that any deprivation of liberty is justified. Through this, citizens are guaranteed the strongest protection against unfair or unlawful confinement by the government: the protection afforded because the public is watching.”

OPEN GOVERNMENT FORUM

The League of Women Voters of Tacoma-Pierce County is holding a forum on the state Open Records Act Tuesday at The News Tribune. It begins at 6:15 p.m.

A panel will discuss issues facing citizens and government agencies in release of public records. Speakers include Pierce County auditor Julie Anderson, state open government ombudsman Tim Ford and TNT investigative reporter Sean Robinson.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434
karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com

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