July 18, 2013 Print

Does the City of Seattle hide documents from the public?

In a lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court today, the City of Seattle is accused of hiding documents from records requests the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) made. (Case # 13-2-26392-1 SEA). SAF is alleging the City of Seattle did not provide all the requested documents when SAF filed a records request with the city earlier this year. SAF asked for documents relating to the City of Seattle’s January gun buyback

SAF Special Projects Director Phil Watson discovered that the City of Seattle provided SeattlePI.com with the very documents SAF requested. The court will need to determine the merits of the case, and it will be interesting to see how the City of Seattle attempts to defend their actions. 

Photo Credit: www.saf.org

However, SAF appears to have a pretty strong claim against the City of Seattle for violating the Public Records Act. Also, the City of Seattle appears to actively discriminate in how and to whom they release these documents. They appear willing to provide the documents to the SeattlePI.com, but they hide the same documents from the Second Amendment Foundation. In addition, SAF seems to have a strong case against the City of Seattle for over-charging them for the records request.

Frequently activists tell me that they suspect a given agency or local government is editing the documents provided to them in information requests. It might be illegal, but that doesn’t mean that bad actors in government will not violate the law. It can and has happened before. How can you discover if this is happening to you with your requests?

First, pay attention to the news and public pronouncements like Phil Watson from the Second Amendment Foundation did in this case. Government can rarely hide the truth and act in bad faith without somebody catching them eventually. Phil did a great job catching this one. How else can you “trust, but verify” that your government is responding correctly and not violating the Public Records Act?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Find an employee who is willing to be a whistleblower and who might have access to these documents in the course of their work.  If you can find a source like this, you can verify that they are not hiding documents.
  • Have someone different in a media organization or the Freedom Foundation file the same information request to confirm the same information is provided.
  • If multiple agencies or local governments are involved, file information requests for the same documents from each of the other agencies to verify that all the correspondence or documents are being provided.

I would only recommend taking these steps if you have some evidence to suspect that agencies are unlawfully withholding documents, but these are options an activist can utilize. 

For the most part, governments in Washington State will not try to hide these records. In the event they do so, they will face penalties, as the City of Seattle may soon discover if the court rules in SAF’s favor. 

There is no place in government for dishonesty, secrecy, political discrimination, or similar actions. Our governments are our instruments, and they are responsible to us, the citizens. Sometimes they appear to forget this fact.  Perhaps this case will be a good reminder to the City of Seattle and other government agencies. The Freedom Foundation is here to help them remember, as well.

Government - Hiding behind the cloak of secrecy


Click here to read The Seattle Times coverage of this story.



Glen Morgan

Property Rights Director

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