New media spurs new conversations about open records

For example, are text messages and social networking tools fair game?

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WALLA WALLA -- When a public official tweets, should we be all a-twitter?

That question and others about the evolving role of texting, Facebook and other new ways to network made for some interesting discussion Wednesday at Walla Walla Community College.

The event was a forum on the state's open records and open meetings laws hosted by the Washington Coalition for Open Government. Attended by about 40 people, including many state, city and county officials and employees, the forum provided an update on the status of laws that ensure the public has access to public matters.

"Texting counts," Scott Johnson, an attorney and coalition board member, said about whether text messages fall under the public records act. "The way to avoid the quagmire is don't text about government business, and don't tweet about it either."

Along with discussing how to keep public and private communications separate and how to archive the growing mass of electronic messages, the forum also touched on challenges to the state's open meetings and public records laws, pending legislation and ongoing issues such as prison inmates misusing the law to harass law enforcement officers.

Along with Johnson, panelists included Mike Fancher, WCOG vice president and retired Seattle Times managing editor; Tim Ford, open government ombudsman for the state Attorney General's Office; Toby Nixon, WCOG president and Rep. Maureen Walsh, D-Walla Walla.

At the start of the forum, Nixon outlined the history, which dates to the founding of the United States, of laws requiring public meetings and open records. "For us, to exercise power over the government means we have to have as much information as the government," he said.

Although state laws mandate public access to records and preservation of those records, efforts are continually being made to erode what is considered a public record, Nixon said. So far, legislation has allowed more than 300 exemptions to the Public Records Act and, "in fact, I think it's close to 400," he said.

Ford discussed his work as ombudsman, a role that last year involved fielding about 700 contacts from people with questions about the public records act and public meetings.

One problem with the state laws at present is that enforcement is done by citizens working through the court system, a method that can create budget-busting legal fees and penalties. One solution would be a state administrative board which would enforce the public records act, "but the budget issue stands in the way," he said.

Walsh also said that "open government is something we all want to see. Unfortunately the big 900-pound gorilla in the room is the budget."

During her remarks, Walsh said one thing she wants to see is a way to have staff-level workers feel free to discuss issues related to their work without fear of losing their jobs or facing retaliation from higher-ups.

"Often what I run into in those social service agencies are people who are afraid to speak out," she said. "I'm trying to address problems within the foster care system (and) we need our staff people to feel confident that they can feel comfortable with bringing problems out."

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318. Check out his blog at blogs.ublabs.org/randomthoughts.

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