Ferguson discusses Washington Supreme Court’s decision to impose fines against King County in public disclosure case

Today, the Washington Supreme Court announced its decision to impose a $371,000 fine on King County for failing to provide documents to Armen Yousoufian concerning the public financing of what is now Qwest Field.

Last year, the county settled another lawsuit for $225,000 involving an allegation that requested documents regarding the 2004 governor’s election were not produced in a timely fashion.

Following that settlement, and while the Yousoufian case worked its way through the legal system, Metropolitan King County Councilmembers Bob Ferguson and Reagan Dunn introduced legislation to reform the county’s public records process. The council unanimously approved the legislation last fall.

“The Yousoufian case helped motivate the council to reform our public disclosure process,” said Ferguson. “It was an expensive lesson, but it is my intent that the adopted reforms will begin a new era of transparency in county government.”

The legislation incorporated recommendations from Attorney General Rob McKenna’s model rules for public records retention and disclosure, the Washington state auditor, and a work group consisting of both County Council and executive staff and the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney. It requires:

• Each county agency to develop a standard request form and post the form on its Web site, making it easier for citizens to complete records requests,

• Each agency to clearly identify its public records officer to ensure that citizens know exactly whom to contact. Contact information for the officer will be posted at the agency’s public service counters and on its Web site,

• If an agency declines to disclose a document on the basis that it is exempt under state law, the agency must provide a written explanation of how the claimed exemption applies to the document being withheld. This requirement allows the public to determine whether the exemption claim is valid,

• Annual reports to be submitted to the County Council tracking each agencies’ records requests and responsiveness,

• If an agency does not have all of the records a citizen is seeking, county employees should direct the public to the appropriate agency,

• Each agency should provide maximum guidance and information on their Web sites about making public records requests,

• Each agency should post commonly requested documents on their Web sites.

King County is required under the state Public Records Act to provide citizens with access to public records upon request. The law defines a public record as “any state or local record relating to the performance and conduct of government.” Public records may be in the form of a written record, report, handwritten note or memo, e-mail, picture, disk, maps or other medium.

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