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The Best Disinfectant 

by JACOB H. FRIES & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t sounds painful as hell, examining reams of bureaucratic language for unclear or unnecessary passages. "It's interesting, but it darn sure isn't fun," says John Hughes, who sits on the state's "Sunshine Committee," which is examining which government records should -- or shouldn't -- be kept secret.

The 13-member committee is made up of lawyers, lawmakers and journalists like Hughes, who's the editor and publisher of the Daily World in Aberdeen. The group's job is to review exemptions to the state's Public Records Act, determine whether they are legitimate and figure out ways to make them more understandable to the general public. This fall, the members will make recommendations to the Legislature.

It's no small task: When voters approved the public records law in 1972, there were only 10 exemptions. Now there are about 300 (the committee itself isn't sure exactly how many there are). "It's breathtaking," Hughes says of the exemptions. "It's just the enemy of comprehension."

The committee started examining what agricultural documents should be available to the public and immediately met with intense resistance. Among the protected, confidential information was data on American ginseng farming -- which has since become a symbol of absurd government secrecy.

Over the years, committee chair Thomas Carr says, lobbyists wrote in exemptions for the industries they represented. And now that those exemptions are being questioned, the blowback has been bitter. The general message: Stop meddling. "All we hear is, 'You shouldn't be tinkering with it,'" Carr says, adding, "We may decide not to do anything, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't be considering it."

On the agenda for the group's June 10 meeting in Spokane (which is, of course, open to the public) is further discussion of agricultural exemptions and time for public input.

The group is also expected to talk about and take comments on its review of attorney-client privileged records. This topic has roots in Spokane. In 2001, a 9-year-old student at Logan Elementary -- with a known peanut allergy -- was given a peanut butter cookie during a school field trip and died. Spokane Public Schools hired a former police officer to investigate, under guidance of the district's lawyers. So when the Spokesman-Review requested copies of documents generated in the investigation, the district refused, citing attorney-client privilege. The state Supreme Court upheld the exemption in December, but the topic continues to be a thorny issue. "I'm not sure where we're going to come down on it," says Carr, Seattle's city attorney.

Other exemptions to be discussed on Tuesday: the addresses and phone numbers of public employees; personal information of people using transit services for the elderly or those with disabilities; and information that could identify people in a state employee wellness program.

To date, the committee's meetings have been dominated by people with a vested interest in particular records rather than by those clamoring for more openness in government. "It's been a little discouraging that there haven't been more" of those kinds of people, Hughes says.

But in the end, while reviewing public records law can be tedious, it feels important, says Candy Jackson, a dietician and health educator in Spokane and a committee member. The work they're doing now will affect the information the public can get in the future. "It's slow," she says, "but I think we're making some progress."

[email protected]

The state's "Sunshine Committee" is scheduled to meet Tuesday, June 10, from 9 am-5 pm at Spokane Falls Community College's Student Union Building. The college is located at 3410 W. Fort George Wright Dr.
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