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Guest Editorial

Suit filed to obtain public employee drug and alcohol test results

Suit filed to obtain public employee drug and alcohol test results

BY JONATHAN BECHTLE

Do you think members of the public have a right to know if public employees piloting state ferries are under the influence of drugs or alcohol? We do.

Do you think the Department of Transportation should use a federal administrative rule to avoid our state public records law? We don't.

This is why the Evergreen Freedom Foundation filed a lawsuit against the Washington State Department of Transportation over its refusal to release the drug and alcohol testing results of employees in the Washington State Ferries division.

Last year the state ferry Wenatchee made a "hard landing" at Seattle's Colman Dock after coming in too fast, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and at least one passenger injury. The official investigative report states that alcohol or drugs were not a factor in the incident.

We hope that's true, but not satisfied with swallowing the company line of "just trust us-everything's okay," the Freedom Foundation's investigative journalist Scott St. Clair requested the forms that are completed after such an incident, and later asked for the agency's investigative report.

DOT responded with numerous records, but redacted information related to the individual results of drug and alcohol testing done as part of the investigation.

The state's Public Records Act places a strong mandate for openness upon public agencies. Public records are to be provided to the public upon request in order to ensure government accountability. As the Act says, "the people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know."

Agencies can only withhold records from public review if the information is exempted by statute. No state or federal statute prevents disclosure of the test results, but DOT justified its redaction by citing an administrative regulation written by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

We believe that agencies should not rely on administrative regulations to justify withholding records. This creates a huge loophole where agencies can simply exempt themselves from compliance through a regulatory process (which usually does not involve elected representatives).

In a situation where public employees put the lives of citizens at risk and cost taxpayers thousands of dollars in damage, we think the Public Records Act contemplates allowing citizens to see information about potential wrongdoing that led to the damage.

Government employees serve the People, after all.

- Jonathan Bechtle is chief operating officer and legal counsel of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a free-market policy organization in Olympia.

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