Without the involvement of the Attorney General’s Office, the public records involving the murder of little Chayson Colley would not have seen the light of day — at least not unless we, as a company, decided to file a lawsuit.
Luckily, we didn’t have to even consider that because the open government ombudsman working for the state Attorney General’s Office called on our behalf and was able to arrange the documents to be released to us.
We had waited almost half a year for the police reports and transcriptions of interviews. Here, on the Harbor, we have many amazing police officials that recognize the value of open government, who make sure record requests don’t get lost in the bureaucracy of larger police departments like ours did in the city of Tacoma.
In March, a 19-year-old Tacoma man was found in the lobby of an apartment complex in Tacoma holding Colley, who was badly bruised. Colley later died. His family is from the Elma and McCleary area, hence our interest. The man pleaded guilty to murder in the First Degree and Rape of a Child in the First Degree in September. He was to be sentenced this month.
In May, we filed a public records request with SouthSound 911, the conglomerate agency in charge of public records for the Tacoma Police Department and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office. We wanted to do the request by email, but the agency doesn’t allow email record requests for some bizarre reason. They asked us to fax it. We did.
We received no response to our records request. After calling and inquiring, no one seemed to know where it was.
At a minimum, I thought I would receive the basic police report information since the suspect had already been charged with a crime. Once a suspect is charged with a crime, the records are supposed to be turned over. That’s why we waited two months to file the records request.
Instead, we received no response until more than a month later. They denied our request citing the investigative exemption, claiming the case was under investigation still. Now that I have the records, I can see when the records were inputted and there was nothing new put in the file from xyz to xyz.
The letter was dated June 26 and it said we had five days to appeal the decision within the date of the letter. We received the letter on July 8 — days after the appeal period had already expired. We wrote a letter to Tacoma Deputy City Attorney John Walker protesting the denial, noting we were never sent a response within five days originally and that the appeal period had already expired.
Mr. Walker replied on July 18 and said he would re-submit our records request and we would receive a response in 15 to 20 business days.
On Aug. 2, we requested a status update. We received no response. On Aug. 25, we requested a status update again. More than a week later, Mr. Walker replied back and told us that the investigation had been completed and the reports were being reviewed to determine if there any other exemptions.
Another month went by and we heard nothing more. Our phone calls weren’t being returned. Our emails were being ignored.
Enter Christina Beusch, who is the temporary open government ombudsman for the Attorney General’s Office. She was able to get a call back within a day and says that the city’s deputy city attorney truly thought I had the documents already. I’m grateful for her assistance.
Somebody over there dropped the ball. I understand local governments are understaffed. I understand a huge agency like SouthSouth 911 likely deals with thousands of requests. But this case would have been ripe for an easy lawsuit and the agency left themselves open to a huge liability but ignoring for months and months a legitimate public records request. My only regret is I didn’t call the Attorney General’s Office sooner.
My good news to report is that Attorney General Bob Ferguson has decided to make the ombudsman position a full-time one. Beusch is just filling in for the half-time position after former ombudsman Tim Ford, who had been in the position for many years, took a job elsewhere. Ford should be commended for doing an amazing job answering questions and working with the public on open government issues, including hosting at least one open government clinic here on the Harbor. I had a great relationship with him during his time in the position.
And Ferguson should be commended for recognizing the value of open government. At a time when governments are cutting back, it’s pretty amazing to make this a full-time position. After a hiring committee narrows down the position, he says he’ll make the hiring choice personally.
It’s obvious the ombudsman position has a real value in reducing lawsuits and helping the public get the information they deserve to have. After seeing the immense staff shortage at SouthSound 911 in handling my records request, it’s nice to know that there’s someone out there we can call and depend on.
Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. Contact him at email@example.com