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Posts published in “Day: July 14, 2008”

Our employees, who we can’t supervise

In our system of governance, the government is a device we - as citizens - set up to do certain things, and which is supposed to be under the control and direction of us, though such mechanisms as elections. The government is our public thing; its employees are our (public) employees. So far, this doesn't seem a far reach. Most Americans would more or less accept that logic.

When comes to attorneys who are public employees or paid by the public, however, something peculiar happens: Much of what they do is abruptly considered "privileged," not available for examination by the boss - the public. Exemptions for "attorney-client" communications are written into lots of governmental law; peculiarly, though, the client involved is a board or agency or executive or commission - never the public.

All of this is the subject of a recent hearing at Olympia on public records and the "attorney-client" exemption from public disclosure. If an agency staffer or executive develops (as part of their public work) notes and files on a given matter, that often can be obtained under public records requests, since their work product on the public's dime is considered to be public. Not so "attorney work product."

(This is not a minor point. There have been cases, notably one recently in Klamath Falls, where documents were taken and stuffed into the records of an attorney so a wall would go up in any attempt shine sunlight on them. "Attorney work product" has exquisite opportunity for abuse.)

We'd grant the need for some exceptions, like some of those in public records laws generally already - some employee dispute issues, some public safety matters, and others. But the question here generally looms larger: Do these publicly-paid attorneys work for the public or not? (Boards and agencies are not the public; they are only the hired help.) If not, there's something significant going on here.

We caught up with this hearing (the outcome of which sounds unclear) via a post on Sound Politics which uncharacteristically took after a Republican legislator, Jay Rodne of North Bend. Rodne (who happens to be attorney for the Snoqualmie Valley Hospital, a public agency) said the attorney-client privilege was valid and if there are problems, voters can act: "Local governments ignore and resist transparency at their own peril."

What he left unsaid, as Sound Politics suggested, is how voters are supposed to find out about the problems in the first place is so many public records are shielded from disclosure . . .