You can't get much worse than two out of 10.
A state audit last May tested the City of Seattle's responsiveness to 10 different kinds of requests for public records. The city, the audit found, failed to fulfill eight of the 10 requests in ways that met the spirit of citizens' most viable means of keeping tabs on government, the state Public Records Act. In seven out of those eight cases, the city neglected to re-route the request to the appropriate department. It was the worst score of any of the 30 city, county, and state agencies that the Washington State Auditor tested simultaneously, with identical queries.
Required this year to display some concrete improvement in meeting requests for public information, on Feb. 27 the City Council began a series of special meetings to review and then implement some changes to the process. A few, noted Open Government committee chair Richard Conlin, are already underway, as city departments are each designating a specific staff member responsible for responding to the public's requests.
The State Auditor last year offered a number of "best practices" it observed in the course of making public-information requests; they included a centralized website for making such requests; signs about the process posted prominently at government desks; and an effective means of tracking requests.
The May 2008 report initially got a chilly reception from Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, who authored a letter to the State Auditor stating that large, complicated bureaucracies like Seattle's were being unfairly compared with smaller entities like the Washington State Investment Board. "The City of Seattle is compared to a city which incorporated in 2003 (City of Spokane Valley)," he wrote in a letter. "Size, number of annual requests, and the complexity of government services would provide more useful comparisons."
Attorney Ramsey Ramerman of the law firm Foster Pepper told councilmembers during the public comment period that a good start to meeting the Auditor's recommendations would be a prominently displayed online form, which members of the public could use to request documents.
Doctoral candidate Trevor Griffey, who has researched the Civil Rights Movement in Seattle, also asked the Open Government Committee to scrutinize the Seattle Police Department's records maintenance. In his search for documents generated during the department's monitoring of leftist groups during the 1970s, Griffey said the police have never sent old records to the city's municipal archives. He also noted that the FBI, subject to the federal Freedom of Information Act, has provided him with more satisfactory responses to requests for archival documents than the Seattle Police. In correspondence with Griffey (an occasional writer for Real Change) after the meeting, councilmember Conlin promised to direct council staff to look into the police's practices.