Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Inept public records management denies access and wastes money

In his excellent "Perspective" piece in the March 2, 2011, Port Townsend Leader, Washington Coalition for Open Government President Toby Nixon outlines the numerous attacks being made by legislators and local government agencies to further hide the public's records from the public.

All records created by any public agency are the property of the State of Washington, and therefore belong to the People.

So why is it that so many public employees seem to feel that the records they deal with every day are somehow are "theirs"?

They will jealously guard access to public records, argue about your right to even ask for them, hide them in unindexed folders that only they know about, and be generally obstructionist when you stand up for your rights and demand to inspect the information that is your right to see. And the longer these people are on the job, the worse this attitude gets.

Example: In response to a public records request for emails to determine if Jefferson County Administrator Philip Morley violated the Public Disclosure Act by advocating in support of the county's Prop 1 Sales Tax measure on last November's ballot, county staff complained that they would have to examine about 8,000 emails for exemptions. Ultimately, about 600 emails were found to meet the criteria of the records request, and this process took months – far longer than the "fullest assistance" and "most timely possible action" requirements of the Public Records Act.

Such delaying tactics are a form of indirect discouragement that can have the effect of denying access.

Equally offensive is the fact that, having vetted all of those emails as disclosable, the county did not then post the emails in an online location for others to inspect. So, if another request for similar information is made, county staff will again have to sift through those same thousands of records.

All of that wasted, duplicated effort will cost scarce taxpayer dollars and could so easily be avoided if agencies would just move all of their records to online storage where they could be searched and inspected by anyone at $0 additional taxpayer expense.

Sheer stupidity, and yet so typical of Jefferson County government.

Monday, February 7, 2011

SVMT can replace lost gas tax revenue (and without using the dreaded MVET)

On January 29, 2011, the following message was sent to the Senators and Representatives who sit on the Transportation Committees of the Washington State Senate and House.

The MVET was a very regressive tax, as is the case with most of the taxes in this state (consistently ranked by every measure as the most regressive tax system in our country). Such an approach should never again be used to fund the transportation system.
Several bills introduced in the prior and current session, "Imposing an additional vehicle license fee on electric vehicles", include the premise that such fees are needed, "In order to mitigate the impacts of the diminishing motor vehicle fuel tax, and to create a system where each driver pays for a fair portion of his or her use of the road".
Right premise, wrong solution. Any such tax would be yet another regressive mistake.
Everyone recognizes that the current fuel tax is an inadequate and declining source of funds. Gasoline and diesel use is declining for many well-known reasons, so a fair alternative needs to be instituted to make up for that lost revenue.
The most straightforward, readily implementable, solution is to enact a VMT, or "Vehicle Miles Traveled", tax.
Here is my proposal for a Simplified Vehicle Miles Traveled (SVMT) method of fairly taxing all vehicles (not just electrics):
  • Every year, when the car tab fee is collected, the owner of each vehicle would be required to take it to a DOL office where the odometer reading would be recorded by a DOL clerk.  The owner would be required to certify that the odometer reading is accurate, much in the same way as is currently done when a vehicle is sold.
  • The SVMT tax would be calculated using the weight of the vehicle times the number of miles traveled since the last odometer reading –weight and miles traveled are the two most significant factors that cause wear and tear on the roads. All other factors (tire studs, etc.) can be ignored, since these are already taxed in other ways.
  • Inoperable vehicles would require an affirmed declaration by the owner stating the odometer reading. If the vehicle is not operable for the entire year, only a de minimis document fee would be charged.
  • It's already a federal crime to tamper with an odometer, so there's plenty of incentive to not cheat this kind of system!
  • The calculated SVMT tax could be paid in installments on a quarterly basis to reduce the impact on peoples' budgets, much like estimated IRS tax payments. Any unpaid SVMT tax would be a lien on the vehicle, collectible at time of title transfer.
  • An adjustment factor could be applied to the fee based on the average distance that people have to travel to meet their daily needs; so, some rural counties or ZIP codes might receive a percentage discount based on such an average. However, the application and amount of any such adjustment would be a political decision.
  • Because a great many commercial vehicles are registered in other states, a separate miles-travelled data collection system would be needed for all commercial vehicles; this should done as an extension of existing statutes that require log books, etc.
I'm very worried that some of the Washington State Transportation Commission's consultants have already started to recommend technically complex systems for measuring Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT); their suggestions use transponders, GPS, and other expensive and often unreliable methods to determine vehicle movement. Any such approach will be extremely expensive to implement, could not possibly be deployed for many years (if not decades), and would be highly invasive of the public's right to privacy.
By comparison, the SVMT approach I have outlined could be implemented in one year for private vehicles using existing DOL offices and staff, with low startup costs for the software changes needed to record and track each vehicle's annual odometer reading.
As for the issue of out-of-state private vehicles, I believe that the net flow of in-state/out-state vehicles is so close to zero that this doesn't really matter.  I completely disagree with the position taken by some that a federal program is needed before a VMT can be adopted in our state. The current gas tax will also help balance this out.
Lastly, once an SVMT tax system is operational, the ever-decreasing gas tax collections will no longer be a worry, and could be viewed as a sort of "gas-guzzler" penalty for those who choose to drive less efficient vehicles.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

School Board Succession Planning

In the Port Townsend School District, two of the five board members of the school board have announced that they will not be seeking re-election this November. These now "lame duck" board members should find their own replacements now, rather than simply waiting for the fall election.

School board members serve without pay and are elected on a non-partisan basis. They are not professional politicians, and they usually have not held any prior public office. And yet, on their first day in office, each newly-elected school board member is required to take an Oath of Office, promising that they "will support the Constitution and Laws of the United States and the Constitution and Laws of the State of Washington, and that I will faithfully and impartially perform and discharge the duties of the office of ____________, according to law, to the best of my ability."

The initiation into life as a public official can be jarring for those not well-prepared. The demands of our state's "Sunshine" laws (the Public Disclosure Act, the Open Public Meetings Act, and the Public Records Act), as well as the numerous other mandates placed on board members by other state laws (RCW), administrative regulations (WAC), and the hundreds of local school district policies, can be overwhelming.

While board members are required to attend some formal training sessions when they first take office, they cannot realistically be expected to be up to speed for quite a while into their terms and, because of their inexperience, even the best-intentioned board members will often make poor decisions.

In business, the idea of training your own replacement is called "succession planning". Its intent is to ensure continuity of operations and to allow successors to hit the ground running. This principle should also be applied to non-partisan public offices.

Between now and next January, when those elected in November will take office, the two retiring board members should select and train their own replacements:

  • At first, the replacements would just attend every board meeting.
  • Later, they might be seated as ex-officio board members, just like the two student ASB representatives who sit on the board each year.
  • Finally, if it looks like the replacements will be a good fit, the retiring members might choose to resign and allow the remaining board members to formally appoint the replacements to serve out the rest of the current term, as is permitted by law and policy.

Read more about this in the American School Board Journal's July, 2010, article:

Some may be concerned that succession planning for elective office is a circumvention of the public election process; it is not. Anyone wishing to serve on a school board is able to attend all of the board meetings, file as a candidate, and make their case to the electorate. If two or more people express an interest in serving on the school board, they must all be given equal opportunity to participate, as outlined above.

Realistically, it is often difficult to find anyone who wants to serve and is willing to devote the many hours needed to do the job properly. Departing board members are to be thanked for their service to the community, and asking them the recommend their own replacements is both reasonable and in the best interest of the school district.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Assault on Public Comments

The following comment was posted online in The Leader in response to an article that appeared only in the print edition of that newspaper (a scan of that article is here):

Posted: Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Article comment by: Tom Thiersch

Did anyone actually read Mr. Yount's "Perspective"? His assertion that, "The record shows that the minutes used by these individuals equals five months of the allotted time for testimony", is such utter nonsense that it negates the rest of his argument.

There are, at most, 48 meetings of the Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) each year. The actual number is usually 46 or 47 because of holiday cancellations. The Public Comment period is "up to 30 minutes" per meeting. 48 times 30 = 1440 minutes = 24 hours, which is hardly the same as "five months". Do the arithmetic!

Additionally, unlike official Hearings where speakers are obligated to speak truthfully and are required to identify themselves for the official record of proceedings, the Public Comments are not "testimony" but are simply the opinions of the speakers.

The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof- or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press- or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The BoCC's Public Comment period is the ONLY venue in which a member of the public can be assured that all elected members of the governing body of the county actually hear their "petition" and don't, for example, just "delete without reading" the emails from those whose views they dislike.

In the past year, there were only two meetings during which the 30 minutes allotted was NOT enough time for all of those who wished to speak. On one of those two occasions, I was among those who did not get to address the board. No one can "dominate" the comment periods because all are given equal opportunity and time to state their views.

What could be more fair, more democratic, than that?

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Sunday, January 30, 2011


Public agencies often deliberately impede the public's right to know by making access to information that is the property of the public more difficult, costly, and time-consuming than it ought to be. gathers several different kinds of public records and places them where they can be found and viewed by all.