Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dealing with regulators: Public Disclosure requests

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In Washington State we have a pretty comprehensive public disclosure law that allows you to ask for and recieve public documents.  A complaint about your farm (or my farm!) is a public document, but so are the files, documents,pictures, emails and other materials that have been collected. 

You can get these materials at any time.  In this case I asked for, and recieved, these materials during the the health departments active investigation.  They do reserve the right to redact (edit) some of the materials, but they typically tell you why the did so. 

In this case they removed the email address of the person who made the complaint, but left the contents of the complaints themselves.  My guess is that the person who complained called in, and then followed up that phone call with email. 

If you have been afflicted with a zoning, health department, Department of ecology or other agency request and would like to see what they're looking at, I reccomend a public disclosure request.  At a minimum cost (in this case, I think I paid $15, copying costs) it provides you with information that you may find useful. 

Each agency usually has a public disclosure officer whos job it is to process these requests.  Each agency will vary a little in how they want you to submit your request (use our form, send it via email, write a letter, that sort of thing), but it's easy, and cheap, and I've found that having this sort of disclosure allows me to make better decisions about how I choose to proceed. 

You can also use public disclosure to look at government conduct towards other landowners.  For instance -- if your neighbor is allowed to do something that you are being prohibited from, how did they do that?   A public records request for their permit, complaint resolution or other documents will give you a roadmap for how it might be done. 

With that said, if you're going to go into a gunfight, you need a gun.  I have found that my results are better when represented by an attorney.  I'll start the research myself, so that i have a basic understanding of the issue, and if it looks like it might be serious, I will tend to hire an attorney.  You get more respect at the table, unfortunately.  Just being a citizen or landowner doesn't really matter to these guys. 

Washington state public record act - the law

The complete scoop on obtaining public records from the Washington State Attorney General

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