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.

Rosenthal then attempted to obtain public records from the county.
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.

Reader Comments (rss)

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  1. icon
    That One Guy (profile), May 19th, 2014 @ 7:43pm

    Small change needed:

    Poynter reports that King County, Washington taxpayers will be paying a Seattle newspaper $40,000 for its violations of public records laws.

    The ones who were stonewalling and pretending to be blind won't be paying a cent personally, so why should they care? What incentive do they have not to do the exact same thing again sometime down the line?

    Want to give elected officials and other 'public servants' a real motivation to not screw the public over like this? Make any fines and/or punishments personally applicable, with the fine amount doubled if they are found to be using public funds to pay it, along with the addition of fraud charges and any fines related to that added on top.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. icon
    JCHP (profile), May 19th, 2014 @ 9:24pm

    "government entities are swiftly turning the former last resort -- a court battle -- into just another step in the public records process."

    Not like they can... I don't know... classify the documents because terrorism and patriotic thingamajingies and spooky stuff. No court case exists if the NSA/CIA/FBI can fumble their way into the fray in exchange for some extra "help" (not that they need it, but... yeah).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 19th, 2014 @ 9:27pm

    Not just a King county problem

    Stabilizing a psychotic person can take several weeks. Insurance companies don't like paying for weeks and weeks of hospitalizations. Especially when the patient is likely to return to the hospital again in the near future. I've seen several instances of doctors declaring a patient stable once the insurance company declared their unwillingness to pay anymore. For those without private insurance it can be even tougher. Yes there are often better government programs available to those below the poverty line. But those patients are usually without family support to protect them from shoddy medical treatment.
    Lack of hospital space, lack of money, over-hesitancy to treat people against their will, and the closure of any longterm mental health care facilities combine to make a revolving door scenario where patients aren't really treated successfully. They just cycle between the streets and the hospital until they end up in jail - the only long-term mental health facility left in the country.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    JCHP (profile), May 19th, 2014 @ 9:28pm

    Re: Small change needed:

    I've always been a big fan of "If you fuck up and it has a financial impact, you pay at least as much as that impact out of your own pocket.".

    You embezzle a million, you pay at least that much back. Private or public.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    That One Guy (profile), May 19th, 2014 @ 9:42pm

    Re: Not just a King county problem

    Gotta love the US healthcare system, the highest quality care, for the lowest prices!

    Or was it the other way around...


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    That One Guy (profile), May 19th, 2014 @ 9:46pm

    Re: Re: Small change needed:

    Sounds like a good idea to me, maybe seeing a few politicians and 'public servants' having to sell off everything they own and/or be driven bankrupt in order to pay off the costs/fines their actions incurred would make others hesitate in following the same paths.

    If nothing else, such a system would at least keep the public from being screwed over twice, once from the original issue, and once from having their taxes used to pay the fines caused by it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    Anonymous Coward, May 19th, 2014 @ 10:42pm

    Meanwhile in Thailand...

    Yeh, off topic Mike, but for the next few days I'm still free to speak, so please tolerate it.

    We've had a coup. The army has seized power and it is expected that in 2 hours time they'll remove the elected government.

    The 'soft coup' option was failing, Sutheps protestors were down to just his guards, a few hundred paid armed people. Everyone realized he was just a liar, and we spotted one of the people who threw grenades at his protest stage was his own guard! Clearly trying to bring the army into the coup.

    Recently his guards were sealing off motorways, stabbing people for moving their traffic cones, even ramming police lines and army with pickup trucks, so it was clear they had military behind them.

    The army has seized the television stations and controlling the news.

    They claim it's 'martial law' not a coup, but there is no rioting (a precondition for martial law), and the only issue is the failure of the Suthep's 'peoples' coup attempt.

    On Monday, Suthep demanded officers of the government meet him at Government House (the army has been letting him use Government House! Sit in the PMs chair and generally pretend to be the government). Nobody showed up. Administrative officers instead went to the pro-democracy protest in large numbers. It was embarrassing for the coup attempt.

    Wednesday (tomorrow) he had agreed with the public union leaders to hold strikes, but nobody was expecting the ordinary people to strike, regardless of their leadership.

    In 2 hours time the government will go meet with General Prayuth at which point we'll know if this is the truth.

    The army has instructed reds (pro-democracy protestors) to stay at their protest site in Aksa road outside Bangkok. THEY NEED TO DISPERSE NOW. He's also said PDRC (Sutheps group of guards) needs to hold its position.

    The army is never neutral, it's always against the democracy, and against the majority vote.

    This is what they did in 2010, when the reds protested because their PPP side won 5 million more votes, and 63 more seats, and yet were banned letting the Democrat party seize power. The Democrats declared central zones of Bangkok as live fire zones and sent the army in to shoot the protestors: 2&theater

    In contrast, our elected PM, Yingluk, simply called an election when faced with Suthep's protest. They (coup group) appointed new Election Commissioners who blocked elections.

    I am calling for immediate sanctions against Thailand until an election is held and democracy is restored. Student visa rejected, trade agreement sanctions.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    carlosjii (profile), May 20th, 2014 @ 6:53am

    pay penalties from public employee pensions

    I was working on LAPD judgments from pension funds

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    I'm_Having_None_Of_It, May 22nd, 2014 @ 6:19am

    Re: Not just a King county problem

    ...and that's why I'm glad we have the NHS, even if our Glorious Leaders are doing their level best to dismantle it.

    Honestly, I'd be well screwed without it.

    Any Brits here? Vote Pirate or Green tonight! /End plug.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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