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PLN wins WA DOC public records case - $541,000 in damages and atty fees

Union-Bulletin editorial, Jan. 1, 2007.
PLN wins WA DOC public records case - $541,000 in damages and atty fees - Union-Bulletin editorial 2007

Huge fine makes it clear that public records belong to public

It is unfortunate, however, that the taxpayers - the public - must pick up the tab for this important lesson.

Updated: Friday, June 15, 2007 2:09 PM PDT
By the Union-Bulletin Editorial Board

The state Department of Corrections was hit with a $541,000 penalty for withholding public records. The fine is both good and bad for the public.

On the positive, the penalty sends the proper message to all public officials. It makes it clear that the people are entitled to know what their government is or isn't doing. They are entitled to access to public documents.

On the downside, it is the taxpayers who will ultimately have to pay this fine, the largest ever levied in Washington state for a violation of the Open Public Records Act. Having an open government that is accessible to the people has a price when the law is broken.

Seven years ago, Paul Wright, who ran the Prison Legal News, requested records relating to the discipline of state medical providers from 1996 to 2000. Wright was running the newspaper from behind bars.

The Department of Corrections provided some documents, but it blacked out the staff names. It said it did that to maintain prison security, according to The Associated Press.

Two years ago, the state Supreme Court ruled that the blacked-out names violated the law, and it ordered the Department of Corrections to pay penalties of between $5 and $100 a day and to pay lawyer fees, the AP reported.

Last year, the DOC conceded some documents had been destroyed. And that constituted a second violation of the law.

That matter has now been settled. The agreement between the parties was filed last week in Thurston County Superior Court in Olympia.

But while the legal conflict has been resolved, the lesson should linger.

Bureaucrats at the Department of Corrections and every other state agency should now understand that public documents are the public's, not theirs.

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