County Government Pays Out $40k To Seattle Newspaper For Violating Public Records Laws
from the what-part-of-'public'-do-you-not-understand? dept
There seems to be nothing more feared by government agencies than transparency. They seem to like the concept, as incoming officials are always proclaiming the new regime to be the “most transparent yet.” But when it comes to execution, they suddenly find a million reasons to withhold responsive documents. Poynter reports that King County, Washington will be paying a Seattle newspaper $40,000 for its violations of public records laws.
More than 1,900 pages of e-mails and documents help tell a story about what’s happened to people with mental health issues in King County in Washington, and what the county’s doing about it — not bad for a collection of documents the county couldn’t seem to find.
The Seattle Times has more details on the county’s attempt to bury its involvement in allowing potentially dangerous people to wander the streets (literally, in some cases) by not performing timely mental health evaluations. Reporter Brian M. Rosenthal had discovered that the county’s mental health facilities were allowing people deemed a threat to themselves or others to walk free simply because they were either unable or unwilling to perform evaluations within the state-mandated time limit: 12 hours for those brought in by third parties or 6 hours if brought in by a family member.
The law is potentially a good one, preventing anyone (like say, the police) from simply dumping someone into an extended stay at a mental health facility simply because they didn’t want to deal with the person anymore. Clearing people not deemed harmful for release within a short period minimizes the chance of wrongful detention. Unfortunately, the King County mental health system is short on qualified examiners and long on potentially harmful people.
“There are people who are psychotic, in need of help, and they get off on a stupid technicality, which essentially means that this poor person walks out barefoot and is in the middle of the street,” said Arpan Waghray, mental-health director at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center, adding that, “You’re just waiting for someone to fail.”
Waghray isn’t offering conjecture here: this actually happened, and the following wasn’t an isolated case.
At 10:40 p.m. the night [Gregory] Benson was released from Fairfax, his parents heard a single knock on the door, a long pause, then another knock.
Their son stood on the porch, disheveled and shivering in 30-degree darkness. He had walked from the Kirkland hospital to their Redmond home, some seven miles.
The parents were relieved, confused and angry.
“We had been waiting almost two years to get him into a facility so he could get help. We kind of thought, ‘This is our chance,’ ” Maria Benson said. “I couldn’t understand what happened.”
Hospital records show it clearly: Benson was admitted to Overlake at 7:47 p.m. on Jan. 28 but not formally ordered to be detained by an evaluator until 20 hours and 41 minutes later, far more than the 12-hour limit for patients brought in by police.
But when Rosenthal went looking for more information on how often this deadline was surpassed, he was stonewalled by the county. First off, everyone he spoke to on record denied there was a problem, or even being aware such a time limit existed. Those who actually worked with the patients told a different story. Not only that, but there was evidence the rule was only selectively enforced — some were sent out into the night to wander seven miles home while others were involuntarily held for days or weeks before being evaluated.
A few weeks later, he was told there were no responsive records. Maybe he’d asked for the wrong phrases, he thought, so he tried again, requesting all communications between the head of the involuntary committment system and the head of the prosecuting attorney’s office.
“And the response was, we have no responsive records.”
So, he submitted another request. This time, documents began to appear. At that point, his employer stepped in.
In March, the Times’ lawyer, Eric Stahl, sent a demand letter and “threatened to sue the agency unless it explained the failure, conducted a thorough search and paid for legal costs and penalties…”
This seemed to work. By the end of the next month, the Seattle Times had obtained over 1,900 documents, many of which showed the problem was far more pervasive than country officials admitted. According to Rosenthal, this situation — the release of someone potentially dangerous — was happening on nearly 200 times a year. What the documents didn’t show was any attempt by the county to acknowledge the problem, much less discuss how to fix it.
Now, with everything forced out into the open, legislators are finally aware of the issue and working towards fixing the law and its unintended consequences. But to get anyone to move on the issue, the newspaper had to threaten a government agency with a lawsuit, something few journalistic entities are willing to do. Not only are there costs to consider, but there’s also the chance access will be severely stunted or cut off.
That a newspaper has to threaten its own existence in order to obtain documents a government agency improperly withheld is more than disappointing. It’s a travesty. Publicly-funded entities have the financial means to outlast many private entities. And even when they concede and cough up damage awards, the money comes out of the public’s pockets. As has been noted here before, government entities are swiftly turning the former last resort — a court battle — into just another step in the public records process.