WA public records access is getting worse, says watchdog report

A watchdog group reports that Washington’s public agencies are making it harder for the public to gain access to information, eroding the state’s Public Records Act. 

The Washington Coalition for Open Government, a group that pushes for public access to government information, released its report this week, revealing several key findings, including longer wait times for records than in previous years and an increase in exemptions in public records law.

The Coalition found that public officials and agencies often obstruct people requesting public information — for example, creating long administrative appeals for denials and imposing deadlines to pay fees before a requester can access records. Sometimes agencies take a lengthy time to respond to requests, or simply fail to respond altogether. 

Data from the report shows that requesters are waiting longer than in previous years to receive information: In 2019, people waited an average of 15 days, which increased to 23 days in 2022. 

Public officials are also becoming creative with ways to withhold public information, like using “legislative privilege” or releasing redacted and blacked-out documents in response to requests. None of the officials that violated the act were held accountable by the public records act. 

From 2012 to 2022, the list of exemptions for disclosing public records has increased more than 30%. 

The report also found that agencies also fail at maintaining and organizing records. The Coalition said agencies spend more time and money searching for documents due to this disorganization.

Not only is their document organization inadequate, but the Coalition found that staff members of these agencies are often improperly trained on how to handle public records. The training that public employees receive from the Office of the Attorney General creates bias and tilts them to favor nondisclosure over transparency, according to the report.

Recommendations from the study include making data accessible to people in a timely manner. They also ask for the government to act transparently and implement pro-transparency recommendations from the Attorney General’s Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee. 

More Briefs

Biden withdraws from 2024 presidential race amid party scrutiny

President Joe Biden speaks at Green River College.

President Joe Biden speaks at Green River College. (Amanda Snyder/Cascade PBS)

President Joe Biden announced on Sunday he is dropping out of the presidential race.

He said in a post on social media that he would address the nation later this week. 

In his statement, Biden touted his administration's accomplishments for the nation, from a strong economy to improved health care and the first Black woman appointed to the Supreme Court. 

“It has been the greatest honor of my life to serve as your President,” he wrote in a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “And while it has been my intention to seek reelection, I believe it is in the best interest of my party and the country for me to stand down and focus solely on fulfilling my duties as President for the remainder of my term.”

He thanked Vice President Kamala Harris for being “an extraordinary partner in all this work.” In a later tweet, he endorsed Harris to be the nominee and encouraged Democrats to come together to support her and defeat former President Donald Trump.

For the latest developments following the president’s announcement, pay attention to PBS Newshour online and on broadcast.

Global tech outage affects WA unemployment system, payments

Washington State Capitol in Olympia

The Washington State Capitol in Olympia on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. (Amanda Snyder/Cascade PBS)

Several Washington state agencies were affected by Friday’s global technology disruption.

An outage at the Employment Security Department has been fixed, but the agency warned that some unemployment benefit payments might be delayed.

The Secretary of State’s Corporations & Charities Divisions suffered some technical problems, but was back online by 1 p.m. Phone, chat and in-person services were expected to resume on Monday. The outage did not delay the mailing of primary election ballots, which were mostly mailed by local election offices before the disruption. 

The problem was related to a Thursday software update by cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike to computers running Microsoft Windows. The computer issues widely impacted hospitals, airlines, government agencies and businesses. 

“CrowdStrike said the issue with the update has been identified and a fix has been sent to customers. This is a software issue and is not related to a cyberattack. State agencies in Washington are using the new software fix provided by CrowdStrike and restoring impacted computer systems,” said a news release from Washington Technology Solutions, which handles information technology for the state government.

Thousands of flights were delayed or canceled out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Washington hospitals and clinics reported computer problems, and closed some clinics and non-emergency operations. 

WA primary election begins today: Ballots in the mail

Voters drop off ballots at the White Center Library ballot box

Voters drop off ballots at the White Center Library ballot box on voting day, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.  (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

Ballots for the Aug. 6 primary election are being mailed to more than 4.8 million registered voters across Washington today.

Citizens have until July 29 to register online via VoteWA.gov or can register and vote in person at county election offices and voting centers through 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Along with their ballot, voters can expect to be mailed voters’ pamphlets with election information based on their residency. Cascade PBS offers a comprehensive Voter Guide with information on statewide, federal and legislative candidates from all regions to learn more about who is running.

All of the state’s 39 counties have races in this election, including 654 elected offices such as Governor, Attorney General, state Supreme Court seat, state Public Lands Commissioner and positions in the House of Representatives and Senate, as well as 94 local measures including bonds and levies.

Washington has a top-two primary system. The two candidates in each race with the most votes will face off in the General Election in November regardless of party. The president and vice president are nominated through a different process and are not included in the August primary. 

Nirvana bassist runs for president to establish WA centrist party

A person with a moustache smiles in front of a backdrop that has the logo of the Grammy awards.

Krist Novoselić at the Pre-Grammy Gala on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Krist Novoselić, the former bassist for Nirvana, is playing several shows through July 27 with his newest band  – the Bona Fide Band – to gather signatures to get on the presidential ballot. But Novoselić says the nomination is just a means to an end – to gain official recognition for a new centrist political party in Washington.

If the party gathers 1,000 signatures from registered voters, Novoselić will be on the November ballot as the nominee for the Cascade Party of Washington, but he says he is not campaigning to beat the front-runners President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump. Instead, the Cascade Party of Washington says that nominating a candidate for president is the only way in this state that it can be recognized as a “bona fide political party,” enabling it to coordinate with and support candidates directly, which a political action committee cannot do.

The Cascade Party says it has petitioned the Secretary of State to remove the requirement of running a candidate for president for official recognition, but it will play by the rules in the meantime and nominate Novoselić by gathering signatures at the shows – which qualify as official conventions under state rules. People can also sign the petition online via the party website. The deadline to hold the conventions is July 27. Upcoming show dates will be July 18 to 27 in cities including Vancouver, Cathlamet, Tacoma, Yakima, Spokane, Richland and Walla Walla. The Cascade Party of Washington states that it represents those “tired of the polarized fringes dominating our politics,” and its platform includes greater urban density, funding law enforcement, a “market-driven transition” to renewable energy and more.

WA Supreme Court lets high-capacity ammo ban stand for now

guns on a wall

Guns for rent at Bellevue Indoor Gun Range on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022. The Washington Supreme Court ruled that Washington’s ban on high-capacity magazines may remain in effect for now. (Amanda Snyder/ Cascade PBS)

Washington’s ban on high-capacity magazines for semi-automatic weapons will stay in effect, at least for now, the Washington Supreme Court ruled on Monday.

The decision, written by Chief Justice Steven Gonzalez, acknowledges the Second Amendment concerns of the petitioners against the 2022 state law, but also notes that many other courts have upheld the constitutionality of high-capacity ammunition bans.

The Supreme Court decided the ban would remain in effect until it can hear arguments on the case in the state’s appeal of the lower court ruling. That hearing could potentially happen this fall.

The decision involves a September 2023 lawsuit by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson against Gator’s Custom Guns in Kelso alleging the store had offered more than 11,400 high-capacity magazines for sale since the state ban went into effect in July 2022.

Cowlitz Superior Court judge Gary Bashor ruled in April that Washington’s ban on magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition violated the state and U.S. Constitutions. Ferguson filed the successful motion to the state Supreme Court for a temporary stay of ruling. Monday’s ruling solidified that temporary stay.

More than 400 new housing units will be built near the Link Light Rail Mount Baker station, including affordable housing. The City of Seattle Office of Housing announced a partnership with Mercy Housing Northwest and El Centro de la Raza to develop these new housing units to “promote community-centered development” in the neighborhood, according to a press release. 

After the pandemic, residents proposed to transform the areas around the station by using them for art, music and other community events to deter crime. 

The University of Washington transferred this property, including the former UW Laundry site, to the city in June 2020. The redevelopment will include affordable housing, child care and an early-learning research facility. The child care center will serve 160 students and provide job training for early-learning educators. The city budgeted $5 million for the project, which will receive additional funding from partners. 

Mercy Housing Northwest and El Centro de la Raza’s plans call for a total of 431 new homes at 2901 27th Ave. S.; 2700 S. Winthrop St.; and 26th Avenue South and South Forest Street. 

About a third these homes are reserved for families earning at or below 30% of the Area Median Income, which currently is $45,200 for a family of four. More than half of the development will be for family-sized homes. The city says this is part of the One Seattle strategy for inclusive and sustainable communities.

The two organizations will receive city funding from the Seattle Housing Levy, the JumpStart/Payroll Expense Tax and the Mandatory Housing Affordability program for the first phase of the project. 

PBS News Hour reports that former President Donald Trump’s campaign said in a statement that he was “fine” after being whisked off the stage at a rally in Butler, Pennsylvania, after apparent gunshots rang through the crowd. 

Video of the incident quickly spread on social media Saturday afternoon, showing Trump grabbing his ear before falling to the ground and being surrounded by Secret Service agents. He later arose with blood on the side of his face before being escorted off stage.  

Check the PBS News Hour homepage for the latest live updates on this developing story, or follow them on X

What’s back, on hold six weeks after Seattle library cyberattack?

A sign on a shelf asks patrons to keep their books, CDs and DVDs because the library cannot currently check them back in.

Because employees of the Central Library have had to manually check in books when they are returned, the library is asking patrons to hold onto their physical books, CDs and DVDs until the system is running again. (Caroline Walker Evans for Cascade PBS) 

Six weeks after a ransomware attack at Seattle Public Library took out many services, wi-fi and printing are now available again at all branches, and the Peak Picks program for popular titles is  expected to make a comeback next week. 

But it could be several more weeks before patrons will be able to return books or place them on hold, according to the library’s blog.

Not everything at the library has yet been restored following  the attack that impacted services over Memorial Day weekend. The library is expecting most of its services to be restored in the next five to seven weeks, according to its blog. The public computers, which many patrons use for job searches and homework, are expected to come back online in mid-to-late August. 

While patrons have access to E-books, audio books and physical items, they can place holds on or return only E-books and audio books. The ability to place physical items on hold could be available in late July or August, according to the library, and they have asked patrons to hold on to the physical books they have borrowed. There is no estimated date for when the library will start accepting returns.                               

All digital services were restored and are now available for use, including the library website, streaming services like Hoopla and Kanopy, Museum Pass, Seattle Room Digital Collections, online newspapers and magazines, and learning tools for students and adults like tutoring and homework help. 

Despite the ransomware attack, the library has continued to hold in-person events such as  author signings, family story times and more. All locations and spaces, like meeting rooms or study spaces, are still open during normal business hours. New patrons can sign up for new library cards in person, but they won’t be able to sign up online until late July or early August. 

Staff are able to answer questions in person or through phone and email. The library hopes to restore the online chat on Monday, July 15. 

New Spokane Police chief Kevin Hall
Kevin Hall will serve as Spokane’s new police chief after spending three decades with the Tucson Police Department. (Photo courtesy of the City of Spokane)

Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown named Kevin Hall as chief of police, the latest in a number of new hires since she entered office earlier this year.

Hall, who will oversee the police department for the second-largest city in the state, comes to Spokane from Arizona, where he spent more than three decades with the Tucson Police Department. Most recently, he served as the department’s assistant chief of police.

Former chief Craig Meidl left the Spokane Police Department at the end of last year and is currently working as interim chief for the Richland Police Department. Assistant Police Chief Justin Lundgren has been serving as interim chief since early this year.

A start date for Hall is to be determined, but city officials said they expect him to start before Sept. 1.

The police chief selection committee included a cross-section of city leaders, advocates, business owners and industry leaders, including Dave Dunkin, president of the Spokane Police Guild; Spokane City Councilmembers Michael Cathcart and Paul Dillon; and Dr. Luis Manriquez, assistant clinical professor at Washington State University’s Floyd College of Medicine.

Hall was selected from a group of four finalists, which included Tom Worthy, police chief in The Dalles, Ore.; Matthew Murray, who recently served as chief of police in Yakima; and Col. Kathleen Lanier from the Memphis Police Department.

With Hall’s selection, Mayor Brown, who defeated former Mayor Nadine Woodward last year, has filled the last significant vacancy in her leadership team. Most recently, in April, Brown appointed Julie O’Berg as chief of the Spokane Fire Department, a position she had held on an interim basis for several months.

In an interview with Cascade PBS earlier this year, Brown said that she was searching for a police chief who was a good communicator and open to innovative practices from around the U.S. and tackling the city’s ongoing budget deficit.

Earlier this month, Brown declared a state of emergency to address the city’s opioid crisis. Among the strategies to combat the crisis is to work with law enforcement at all levels to deal with the ongoing drug market in the corridor of Second and Division streets.

Along with announcing the selection of Hall as police chief, the Spokane City Council also announced they would seek volunteer committee members to provide feedback for and against a community safety ballot measure that would increase the sales tax by 0.1%, with exemptions for food, prescription drugs and other necessities. The city estimates the new tax will raise $6.5 million in revenue annually. Among their plans for the money are upgrades and replacements to fire equipment, a relaunch of the city’s neighborhood resource officer program, and the expansion of its capacity to respond to extreme weather conditions. Brown had announced the sales tax proposal earlier in the week.

Burn ban issued for Washington forest lands through Sept. 30

Smoke from wildfire at the Washington state Capitol

In this Sept. 12, 2020, file photo, smoke from wildfires in Oregon and California create hazy skies above the Washington state Capitol in Olympia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Washington Department of Resources has implemented a statewide burn ban for state forest lands in response to dry summer weather conditions that increase wildfire danger.

The state agency is implementing the ban in response to dry summer weather conditions that increase wildfire danger statewide. The DNR is looking to reduce potential wildfire ignition as firefighters respond to several fires already raging across the state. Much of the state, which has been experiencing a heat wave in recent days, is under high, very high or extreme fire danger.

Under the ban, which began Wednesday afternoon, outdoor burning will be prohibited on any forest lands under DNR fire protection through Sept. 30. This includes campfires and charcoal briquettes. Depending on fire conditions, the DNR may extend or shorten the ban period.

The DNR ban does not include burning on private land or on local, state or federal park lands. But local bans may be in effect. The Washington Department of Ecology keeps track of some other burn bans, and local fire agencies issue others. For example, King County is under a Stage 1 Burn Ban, which means residents cannot burn yard debris, but recreational fires are OK. King County restrictions do not usually impact cities like Seattle, which has its own regulations and bans.