Given the recent decisions of the Coulee Dam Town Council, I must admit that I’m feeling empowered! That I could almost single handedly force the Town of Coulee Dam to create a new position to deal with their legal and ethical responsibility is, well, entertaining if not downright laughable. The mayor, some of the Town Council, and the Town Clerk would like you to believe that my involvement, my probing, my research, is the cause of their own inability to get their day-to-day work done. Of course it is not!
The Public Records Act in Washington has been around since 1972 (a full quarter century before Snow became mayor) and it is true, some jurisdictions do complain about the “burden” of it, particularly those that do not conduct themselves in a way that is transparent to the public. Snow and his ilk should remember that the legislative intent was driven by these words: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments they have created. The public records subdivision of this chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy.” Just five years ago, these same statutes were changed in order to clarify and redefine “records” in/of the digital age, provide guidance for the “model rules” under the Washington Administrative Code, and strengthened the “better good” rights for disclosure. Furthermore, in 2007, the statutory intent was further reinforced by this legislative inclusion: “The legislature intends to clarify that the public’s interest in open, accountable government includes an accounting of any expenditure of public resources…”
In a recent telephonic Town Hall meeting with Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, Mayor Snow was heard to complain about the requirements for public records disclosure and to request that the Washington State Senate water down the effectiveness of this “people’s rights” legislation! Why would any agency discourage transparency? The reasons are clear, compelling, and obvious and they have nothing to do with the fact that Greg Wilder is requesting too many public records, and everything to do with the disclosure of the record’s content.
Does the town need a new position of “records manager?” This depends a whole lot on the efficiency and “service acumen” of the existing clerk. According to Councilmember Hjorten, the town needs the position because the clerk already has “three busy functions right now and doesn’t need Wilder as a fourth.”
Let’s look at that statement. Starting with the Wastewater Treatment Project Administration Hjorten mentions as one of the clerk’s pressing responsibilities, I see that $2,000 has been budgeted for local “administration.” The clerk’s salary is well over $62,000 per year so, as a percentage, about 2 percent (not 33 percent or even 25 percent) were anticipated for the “administration” of the sewer project. As a footnote, the town will be paying its engineer some $1.2 million for their engineering and “administration.” As to/for the “BPA Project” also mentioned, Hjorten would have you believe that the town clerk is practically building the project herself with her own bare hands! Administering permits and agreements is one of the duties and responsibilities typical to the clerk’s position - it’s day-to-day stuff, and when or if more help is needed because of an unusual or demanding project, you sometimes train, delegate, or hire a project manager for the duration of the overload … you don’t use it as an excuse to grow your fiefdom with another employee! Oh, I almost forgot the third “other thing” that Hjorten credits the clerk with doing - “her own all-consuming job!”
I can assure you I don’t make redundant requests for records. “If” the clerk releases the right and full record in the first place, additional requests are not necessary. One way to insure we are “honestly” represented is to ask for that which is claimed to have been done. As an example, Mayor Snow claims to have written untold letters and emails to our legislators, practically begging for financial assistance to help with the new $6.2 million sewer project. I asked to see them … sorta like the 1984 Wendy’s commercial metaphor, “where’s the beef?” They still haven’t been disclosed; but the good news is, in the face of this unnecessary sewer plant, overspending for a water treatment plant, super high utility rates, and taking time out to fill our swimming pool with sand, the mayor is “working with a Cajun band!”
You may still wonder why it is that I find the need to review public records. For one thing, to understand “perspective.” As stewards of the public’s trust and treasury, how do “our” employees perform? How do we compare to others and to our own history without access to records? And from this discovery and disclosure - can we do better? It’s not enough, as an example to know that out town clerk is one of the highest paid clerks for a town/city our size in the state. At the end of the Mayor Hartman Administration (in 1993) the position was paid about $32,000 per year with basic benefits. That person then was busy, too, with the same “all-consuming job to do.” Today (in 2012), under Mayor Snow and this town council, the position pays $62,754 with enhanced benefits. That’s a 94-percent increase far, far outpacing the Consumer Price Index! But maybe with all those additional responsibilities for the BPA project, the sewer plant, and the clerk’s “regular duties,” there may be a point and purpose for the enhanced salary - as encouragement for her to do the job! There is, however, no point, purpose, or reason to hire a “records clerk” as yet another minion for Snow and expense for us.
As a footnote, I recently needed information from the town’s ordinance documents. Rather than strain the clerk’s work program, I sorted through those documents myself. I spent from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. doing that — under the watchful eye of our police chief! Personally, I think his time is better spent elsewhere and his unnecessary presence cost us all upwards of over $150. I’m sure now that the mayor (or more likely, the clerk) will advise a compliant council that it needs to hire yet another police officer just because of “Wilder!” Then, not only will I have my own records clerk, I might even get to have my own police officer!