When in doubt, black it out.
Without our noticing, officials at Tacoma Public Utilities must have adopted that as their motto when it comes to disclosing anything about the taxpayer-owned Click cable network.
We’d check for the motto in their strategic plan, but the version they sent us is 80 percent blacked out.
We’d call and ask them, but when we asked last week about language in a memo they sent the Tacoma City Council, we got this response from spokeswoman Chris Gleason:
Never miss a local story.
“You know, we’re a little bit uncomfortable answering questions about Click until this litigation gets settled.”
“This litigation” refers to The News Tribune’s 18-month battle to get a simple piece of information: How much does Click pay Seattle broadcasters to retransmit their programming?
We asked for the contracts in February 2013. TPU agreed they were public, but asked the broadcasters’ permission for release. Broadcasters raced to court to keep the contracts secret, declaring their fees “trade secrets.” If revealed, broadcasters cried, they’d all be out of business.
Fair enough, we’re in court battling the trade secret issue.
But TPU is now stretching both state law and a judge’s order to lock up information about how it’s running Click.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Ronald Culpepper ruled against The News Tribune in March 2013. Until our appeal is heard, he said, TPU could not release “any records related to the retransmission agreements that are the subject of this consolidated case” unless the broadcasters consented.
Later last year, we requested copies of checks TPU wrote to the broadcasters. We’d never seen taxpayers denied such basic documents about how the government spent their money. TPU refused us, citing the Culpepper order.
We got the information from another source and published it two months ago. We calculated the per-subscriber fees Click paid each Seattle broadcaster. We showed how they jumped in recent years, contributing to Click’s need to raise rates six times since 2010.
TPU officials begged us not to run the story. We did. Despite numerous other problems with its long-term business model, Click has not gone out of business. Neither have the Seattle broadcasters.
Which brings us to the latest flap.
TNT reporter Kate Martin obtained a May 15 memo from TPU director Bill Gaines to the Tacoma City Council and the TPU board offering background information on its latest rate hike request. It ends with this:
“Staff engaged CCG Consulting during 2013 to produce an updated strategic plan for Click.” The plan was “socialized” with the TPU board, the memo said, and eventually would be “socialized” with the City Council.
Martin asked for a copy of the strategic plan.
In return, TPU gave Martin six documents. They total 140 pages. Of them, 112 pages are blacked out.
Two documents are slide presentations. Only the title pages are visible, plus a slide about the cable TV industry in general. Slide after slide, page after page is completely black.
TPU gave a couple of reasons for its heavy-handed secrecy.
It blacked out Page 12 of the first document, it said, because it pertained to the retransmission fees Culpepper ordered withheld. Understandable.
TPU blacked out the remaining 111 pages citing an exemption in the state open records law. It allows agencies to exempt drafts of documents used to formulate policies.
When the TPU board or City Council makes policy decisions based on the documents, TPU wrote, it will release unredacted versions.
First, are these draft documents? Several are labeled drafts, but that doesn’t make them so. They were completed more than a year ago. None since. The most recent payment to CCG we could find Friday in the city database was in December 2013. (Records showed that TPU paid CCG $21,211 last year, and a total $95,173 since September 2010.)
Second, the “draft” exemption is narrowly focused, according to model rules offered by the state attorney general:
“Courts have held that this exemption is ‘severely limited’ by its purpose, which is to protect the free flow of opinions by policy makers. It applies only to those portions of a record containing recommendations, opinions, and proposed policies; it does not apply to factual data contained in the record.”
The Click strategic plan is advice offered by a consultant, not deliberations of board members. And none of the words on these 111 pages are facts? They’re all opinions?
We had a one-word answer for that on the farm where I grew up.
Martin’s editor, Kim Bradford, called TPU to ask another question to help us determine whether the strategic plan was shared in a public meeting. TPU’s memo said it had “socialized” the plan with its board. What does “socializing” mean? Bradford asked.
What she got in return was Gleason’s voicemail answer about TPU’s discomfort.
“At this point,” Gleason added, “TPU just feels like it’s best just not to talk about Click until, you know, there’s a ruling that tells us kind of what we can talk about and what we can’t talk about.”
Nowhere in state open records law is there an exemption for “we’re a little bit uncomfortable.”
Do your job, TPU.
Protect information the judge said couldn’t be released, but don’t use his order or any other excuse to slam the door on the public’s right to know the rest of Click’s business.
Our court appeal regarding release of the Click contracts is scheduled for June 30.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434