Recent Local Blog Posts

How downtown Olympia was almost ruined by I-5

Olympia Time - Mon, 04/14/2014 - 6:51am
Shanna Stevenson's chapter in "The River Remembers" (edited by Gayle Palmer) is a thorough history of transportation through Tumwater. Most of it is a lead in to Tumwater's most notable historic wound, the construction of Interstate 5 through the historic center of the city.

Stevenson's history includes an interesting footnote on what could have happened if Olympia had gotten its way. Instead of going straight through the old Tumwater historic neighborhood down by the former Budd Inlet waterfront, the Olympia city leaders wanted the highway through their city.

The proposed route was to loop the interestate through the town coming from the west through the Percival Creek canyon. Then, it would go through downtown in a tunnel under 10th or an elevated roadway over 7th.

So, the two options both included a highway at the foot of the capitol campus. Option one was a new tunnel. Option two was a viaduct running just south Sylvester Park.

This overlay of Olympia in 1941 with our current roads shows exactly why this was feasible. Even though the old Swantown Slough was filled for decades by this era, very little of the south end had been developed. version.
After finding a way through downtown, it would have been easy to route the interstate through the rest of town.

I also find it interesting that when this plan was seriously being considered (1952 through 1954), it was the early days of Capitol Lake. The city was advocating for a major interstate to loop through a place that they'd just spent more than a decade pushing to become a lake. Hardly fitting the Wilder and White vision of Capitol Lake creation, I'd say.

Of course, Capitol Lake then was hardly the park rimmed area it is now. In the 1950s, the first lake park was still ten years off. There was still a major rail yard on the south bank under the capitol and industrial buildings were still on other banks.

So, in the mind of the city leaders, in the early 1950s, the lake being the setting of a major downtown park was hardly in the plans.

Going through Tumwater ended up being cheaper, so the state highway commission chose that route. But, it wasn't because Olympia didn't want it.

The tragedy towards the end of the local ownership of Olympia Beer

Olympia Time - Thu, 04/10/2014 - 5:46am
Seattle Times, 1983
We all mourn the closure of the Olympia brewery. We all hope it comes back, at least the territory of the brewery, to become a new heart for our oldest non-native community.

Decades before our latest mourning, we mourned the sale of the company and brand to non-local owners. I wrote a bit about this history over at Thurston Talk recently. The story centered on a phenomena originating in the prohibition of tobacco advertizing in the late 1960s:

The true factor leading to the Schmidt family’s sale, in the early 80s, where market forces dating back to the ban on tobacco advertising on television in 1971. Phillip Morris, one of the largest tobacco purveyors, decided to diversify a few years before the ban and bought Miller in 1969.The Miller sale sounded off like a shot to the once traditional and staid brewing industry. “Budweiser met the challenge,” Knight said. “The two companies started buying up every market in the U.S., rolling over smaller breweries.”
While it might seem like the tobacco giants were buying beer companies, what they were really buying was geography.  The quickest way to break into new beer markets was to buy existing beer companies, gaining loyal beer buyers and their preferences, along with beer distribution arrangements.
A few years later, the Schmidt family reacted by buying Hamms (1974) and then later Lone Star (1977). “Olympia was a little late getting into the game,” Knight said.
“They had to get bigger or get a lot smaller,” Knight said. “Each time Olympia bought a new brand, it would give them a boost.” Olympia’s attempt to appeal to the drinkers in the newly acquired territories included the Artesians campaign.
But, in trying to keep up in a race of quickly nationalizing brands, the Schmidts eventually ran out of family talent and stock. In 1983 Paul Kalmanovitz (who owned Pabst and had also bought other Washington brands like Lucky Lager) bought Olympia Brewing Company.This is a totally plausible and realistic story that is backed up by other histories of the era, which additionally cite legal troubles brought on by the mergers. But, this business-centered history runs counter to the local knowledge of why Olympia was sold. Because the then president of the company was caught having sex with another man in the Capitol Lake bathrooms.

This did happen. In early 1980, in the twilight of locally-owned Olympia Beer, Rick Schmidt and two other men (a state legislator and a state agency director) were arrested for lewd conduct. The three non-out-of-the-closet men quickly faded from their public lives. All three quit their jobs and disappeared for awhile. Eric Rohrbach (the former state legislator) is back involved in local politics.

Both Schmidt and Joseph "Dean" Gregorius (as far as I can tell) never reentered public life.

The question is, whether Schmidt resigning had much to do with the eventual sale of the family firm. I'd say very little. The Schmidt family was doomed by nation-wide forces, not by the fall of the scion.

Research has pointed out that family-led companies have a particularly bad time reacting to industry-wide change:
The cultural view of family firms implies that these firms might be less willing to make changes to their overall strategy even when market pressures ask for such changes. Out of a sense of duty and respect for their elders, younger generations might find it difficult to change decisions such as where to locate, what to produce, or which customers to serve.Just being a family-owned company is bad in the long run:
This paper provides strong evidence that promoting family CEOs in publicly traded corporations significantly hurts performance even after controlling for firm and industry characteristics, and aggregate trends.

I find that, consistent with wasteful nepotism,declines in performance are prominent in firms that appoint family CEOs who did not attend a selective undergraduate institution. In contrast, comparable firms that promote non-family CEOs do not experience negative changes in performance, even when incoming unrelated CEOs did not attend selective colleges. So, what is the tragedy here? Sure, its bad that Rick Scmidt left the company. And, its bad that Olympia Beer had to be sold, instead of surviving as one of the few family owned breweries.

But, the real tragedy is that Schmidt, Rohrbach and Gregorius were arrested and publicly outed in the first place.

Let's go back to Olympia in 1980. According to this history, the "Capitol Lake Bathroom Bust" followed "a period of harassment and police targeting of Gay men." This also isn't a time when men with public profiles could live out of the closet.

The reason the arrests of these three men was news was because they had public profiles, but also because the arrests were of gay men.

And, let's put into perspective the operation that brought them in. The Olympia Police Department spent two weeks looking into the bathrooms before coming up with anything.

These type of operations, where police would stakeout homosexuals, hoping to come up with an arrest, has been called harassment by activists. The time spent by OPD in 1980 to come up with a few lewd conduct arrests certainly makes it seem that way.

Arrests like this also had deep social wounds. From a San Antonio library blog (of all places):

“I am primarily concerned with this grieving family in my parish, with the fact that we have lost such a wonderful man, and the news media played such an important part in driving him to suicide. There is no question but that his learning that his name had been published was the direct cause of his jumping off a bridge. . . .I also would say very strongly that a society that pays its policemen to spend hours on their haunches or lying prostrate on the top of a building peering through a hole to spy on men is a very sick society.”

This excerpt from an anonymous letter that appeared in a 1966 issue of Christianity and Crisis  captured the devastation exacted on men who were caught having sex in public restrooms and had their names published in the newspaper after being arrested. Sting operations by law enforcement officials against homosexuals in public places were nothing new. In San Antonio, police had been ferreting out gay cruisers in Travis Park–located in the heart of the city–since the 1940s. But were undercover operations and demonization of those caught in the web of such actions indicative only of the era that predated Stonewall in which homosexual harassment was part and parcel of urban life? We are a different town now. Our police are much more honorable. We are much more fair. But, we have to get our stories right.

The Olympia Brewing Company was caught in an economic storm that was swamping family breweries. That Olympia went down is nothing special. Rick Schmidt wouldn't have saved them.

Blaming the loss of the brewery on him is unfair. It also takes blame off of us, the way our community was not at all accepting of homosexuals. The sting operation, the public castigation, the disappearance from public life of these men. That's the sad story we should tell, the cautionary tale.

Signs of spring (Olyblogosphere for April 7, 2014)

Olympia Time - Mon, 04/07/2014 - 6:03am
1. Sue Gunn, despite sounding environmentalist, is still holding the conservative line in Thurston County. At least according to Ken of Lacey.

2. One little post about Moving to Olympia becomes the meta-fight of the city.

Says one:

Statistically we have a much higher population of youth homeless than is common.
Says another:

You're still focusing all of your energy onto the symptom and not the problem.
And, another:

Young people choosing irresponsibility in life shouldn't be the burden to bear of those who are responsible enough to pay our own way through life. Move to Olympia. Get more of this. Just don't move here without a job. Seriously.

3. Ryan Williams lives around here and he's a pretty good writer. The Myth of the Day Off. Look, here are all of the books by him.

4.There are a lot of local guys in professional baseball. More than you think.

5. Via Olyblog, through a tweet by me, copying and pasting an email I got which included an attachment of an essay by Bethany Weidner. Things are getting warm in the Planning Commission.

Cascadia, the (urban) region of the Big Sort

Olympia Time - Thu, 04/03/2014 - 5:39am
This was a stupid blog post.

In it, I was trying to prove a point. That even though there is from time to time a surge of new people coming in to Cascadia, that the population already settled here is so big, that our regional personality (the Cascadia Calm) wouldn't be usurped by Southern Charm.

I still don't think Southern Charm is going to take over, but I ignored one specific piece of important information in that post. Most of the net migration in Cascadia is going to two places, Portand and Seattle.

So, if you're moving to Cascadia, you're much more likely to move to an urban place or somewhere near an urban place.

So, the question remains, are all those new residents changing the urban areas or Cascadia? Well, sure. But, you have to ask yourself, why are they moving their in the first place? Because they want to change it, or because it is the type of community they like to see themselves in? I'd bet it was the latter.

I'd also argue that Cascadia was particularly well positioned to take advantage of the Big Sort, the drastic demographic shift post 1965. Millions of people uprooted themselves and moved to places like Seattle and Portland, and still do. When the economy is good here, people come flooding in to our cities.

We were well positioned because our regional personality was literally open to it. We're a business friendly crowd, so new ventures are typically seen as a good thing. This goes back to our New Englander capitalists origins. We're also a live and let live sort. This goes back to our Appalachian, Ohio Valley farmer origins.

The data backs this up. When you rate regions by "openness," Cascadia floats to the top. The same study points out that open people (creative, patent pending sorts) migrate to an open area, the effects tend to build on themselves. When the good times roll in Cascadia, more open people show up and "that change may lead to an increase in liberal public opinion and patent production and, thus, to a more open culture."

So, we get even more urban, even more liberal, open and creative cities. Our cities are recruiting people because we're Calm and the Calm builds because we're recruiting more urban people.

The deep politics of Oso

Olympia Time - Mon, 03/31/2014 - 6:09am
The thousands of tons of mud aren't dry, the recovery isn't complete. But, people are alrady scratching their heads why more wasn't done to warn or prevent people from living beneath "slide hill."

When I look at the hear of the area covered by the slide, a neighborhood along Steelhead Road in an oxbow of the Stillaguamish River, I can see a neighborhood already familiar with the perils of living at the business end of nature.

Riverside living and the floods that go along with it is already ignoring the risk that you'll face floods every once in awhile. Living in an oxbow is just asking for floods.

So, asking why the county didn't do more to warn or move these people from the riveside or from below the slide area is asking a big question. It centers on the difference between the perspective of rural landowners and suburban and urban people that make up of Snohomish county civic life.

Plainly said, the people who run the county and the people who lived on Steelhead Road are the faces of two radically different parts of Cascadia. This is more than a traditional right/left or red/blue political and social divide. While in many ways it follows that dichotomy, it has its own Cascadian flavor to it.

And, the answer goes back to the founding of the non-native society out here. There are two major groups that put down early roots and still define much of our society: New England capitalists and Appalachian farmers (mostly from the Ohio Valley).

For much of our history out here, the New Englanders migrated to the urban Puget Sound. They founded timber companies, ran the Republican political machines and owned the newspapers. Before the Democratic surge in the 1930s that wiped away the Republican political advantage, these New Englanders were political life in Cascadia.

But, the Appalachians were always there. While they identified as Democrats nominally early on, they stuck to the well-spaced rural areas of the state. Their influence on our political culture has been the strain of what we'd now call libertarianism that stretches pretty far across our political spectrum. In the recent election returns on gay rights and marijuana (that included both rural and urban votes) and one recent local election for me, it is possible for this libertarian strain across both liberal and conservative politics in Cascadia to unite.

So, back to Snohomish County and the folks on Steelhead. What was it about our political origins that caused this tragedy?
  ...there were discussions over the years about whether to buy out the property owners in the area, but those talks never developed into serious proposals.

“I think we did the best that we could under the constraints that nobody wanted to sell their property and move..."Take a simple look at it like this. Urban and suburban Snohomish County (and Cascadia) are the decedents of townie Republican New Englanders. They're business friendly and with a deep seeded civic mindedness that has sprouted a sense of environmentalism. That sense of doing what is right for the good of the community brought them to point out that slides happen were they do and to map flood areas.

But, the ability to do anything about it stopped where it became obvious that no one wanted to listen to them. The deep sense of individualism that came west with the Appalachians in Cascadia still rules the point of view, especially along the Stillaguamish River.

Sadly, one of the former political leaders on the Appalachian end of the spectrum likely died in the Oso mudslide.

Sure, it is possible to offer enough money to make anyone want to move. But, it isn't like Snohomish County had magic public funds growing fairy dust. And, when it came to spending that limited public money on someone that really didn't want to move in the first place. Well, you see where the attention of Snohomish civic leaders can be distracted.

Its easy to point to the available evidence and blame well intentioned people for not doing more. But, it is worth looking back at our origins here and seeing that it isn't simple.

Olympia Time: I'm not sure if it is true, if it matters. But, in any case, people of Chinese decent have had a long history on one particular block of downtown

Everyday Olympia - Thu, 03/27/2014 - 8:52am
Olympia Time: I'm not sure if it is true, if it matters. But, in any case, people of Chinese decent have had a long history on one particular block of downtown:

Emmett on the always great Olympia Time:

This letter to the editor (actually just one passage of it) in Olympia Power and Light bothers me more than it should:

Columbia Heights Partners LLC, a Chinese backed company…

 Backed by the Chinese? Why does that matter? Is it the implied xenophobia that matters to me? Probably.

What bothers me is not the implied xenophobia, I doubt people in Olympia are meeting in back rooms with white hooded cloaks. What bothers me is that we give people like this a voice in this city. This is the State Capitol. We’re a city of just over 40K, but the central hub for over 200,000 people in the South Sound. We need more professional, experienced and mature voices and leaders to represent and shape this city.

I'm not sure if it is true, if it matters. But, in any case, people of Chinese decent have had a long history on one particular block of downtown

Olympia Time - Thu, 03/27/2014 - 5:34am
This letter to the editor (actually just one passage of it) in Olympia Power and Light bothers me more than it should:

Columbia Heights Partners LLC, a Chinese backed company...  Backed by the Chinese? Why does that matter? Is it the implied xenophobia that matters to me? Probably.

Yes, the major investors behind the project have Chinese names, but live in Washington.

The person seemingly managing the project was born in China, but went to school in North Carolina and is an American citizen.

But, now in terms of who builds what downtown, we're concerned about what country they come from?

Especially when the Chinese connection to that particular block of downtown runs way deeper than I assume the letter writer knows. If there's one particular block of Olympia where people with Chinese names should build, its that one.

Ed Echtle, as always:
As downtown expanded in the late 1880s, Chinese relocated their businesses to the corner of Fifth Avenue and Columbia Streets, on what was then the waterfront.  Five two-story wood frame buildings, housing the Hong Yek Kee Company, the Quong Yuen Sang Company and the Hong Hai Company were built on piles over tide flats.Here's a couple other views of the block, where you can see the layout of Chinese businesses on the block where now a group of Chinese-American businessman want to build a new building:

1888, mostly down on 4th Avenue, ironically where the New Moon Cafe is located.

And now, just one labelled "old Chinese" in 1896 on the southwest corner of the current parking lot:

By the way, these maps are Sanborn maps and are available online at the Timberland Regional Library.

Everyone hates the Olympian, everyone hates Nazis. These two things are very much not the same, obviously (Olyblogosphere for March 24, 2014)

Olympia Time - Mon, 03/24/2014 - 8:45am
1. On one hand the pro-People's House people hated the Olympian's editorial.

2. On the other hand, the anti-People's House people hated the Olympian's editorial. At least we all can agree on something.

3. Here's Rick taking us on a ride around South Puget Sound CC.

4.The person who runs the Nuit House (who knew it existed?) points out that 200 people would like to relocated to a low cost home for artists.

5. Hey, go back up to #3 and think to yourself, speaking of old time Olyblog people. Our favorite Sarah from McCleary is back. Apparently spurred by the reappearance of Nazis in Olympia, which is obviously a sad event. But, its good to have Sarah back in the saddle. Boy, it was almost 8 years ago now that the Nazis and Sarah first crossed swords.

einmaleins: Olympia. Dinner. (at The Bread Peddler) The Bread...

Everyday Olympia - Fri, 03/21/2014 - 9:37pm


Olympia. Dinner. (at The Bread Peddler)

The Bread Peddler, Downtown Olympia.

Empty downtown Olympia

Olympia Time - Thu, 03/20/2014 - 5:04am
No one lives there:

Seriously, downtown Olympia is in the same category as my neighborhood, and I live in an unbuilt wasteland where people wish there were taller buildings

 WastBut, of course, when someone talks about building a seven story building in our empty-of-people downtown, people speak up, because this is some sort of horrible thing. Like we should be protecting parking lots from the evil expansion of multistory housing.

I can't speak to his stats, but David Scherer Water, makes a striking point about how downtown has changed as Olympia has expanded:
Less than four percent of Olympia’s population lives downtown. This is the lowest this ratio has been in the City’s history. A hundred years ago more than half the population of Olympia lived downtown. Fifty years ago it was about ten percent. Today 96% of our population comes downtown to visit, to shop, to party and they leave. I believe this is the source of most if not all of the complaints commonly made about downtown. We need more people to live downtown.  Density is good. People living downtown is good. More people living in a dense neighborhood means fewer cars, more people walking and more services and good things downtown.

Happy Irish Day, Seattle Celtic were local champs 99 years ago

Olympia Time - Mon, 03/17/2014 - 6:09am
Back in the dark forgotten history of Cascadia, soccer used to be a pretty big thing around here. In the first decades of the 20th century, there was a thriving local soccer culture. There were several clubs in Seattle and the surrounding towns, especially logging or coal towns dotted around the cities.

Seattle Celtic lifted the cup in March of 1915:

You can read my much longer birds-eye-view piece about the early history of Puget Sound soccer over at GoalWa. Here is a peak into the period of the Celtic club's championship run:
The Post-Intelligencer Cup was won by the Seattle Celtics; Tacoma was second, Carbonado third, and Black Diamond fourth and last. These teams and the Seattle Rangers and Woodland Park clubs competed for the McMilan Cup. Both cups are played for in the league system.

The McMilan Cup competition was a seesaw affair from the beginning to the end, and the winner was only decided after the last game had been played. The Tacoma team finished ahead of the Celtics by one point ; Black Diamond, Carbonado, Rangers and Woodland Park followed in the order.Boy, lifting the knockout tournament cup, but missing the league title by one point to Tacoma? Ugh. I feel for the Irish today.

Mostly because I assume the Celtic brand is a powerful one (that goes way further than the borders of Glasgow), there is a Seattle Celtic club still.

I support the Columbia Heights project

Everyday Olympia - Fri, 03/14/2014 - 9:30am
I support the Columbia Heights project:

We’ve waited too long for a project like this in the heart of downtown. The proposed Columbia Heights project will improve the character of downtown and increase the population in the core of our city.

Sent this email to the City Council. Any progress this town can get is so desperately needed and the no-growther, NIMBY crowd is just too damn well engrained into our system here in Olympia for anything to go without support by people who actually care.

Why one issue elections are the dark side of local politics

Olympia Time - Thu, 03/13/2014 - 6:25am

Karen Veldheer signed to put R-71 on the ballot, to overturn same sex domestic partnerships in Washington State. But, when talking about equal rights during her city council campaign, she failed to mention this.
I was thinking about five years ago in Olympia recently. At the time I was posting a lot about Karen Veldheer's candidacy, and some other folks were responding:
I hope you can look past a candidate's religion, and not stereotype conservative Christians as a people unable to accept or respect homosexuals, or uphold legislation or benefits that aid others who hold differing beliefs. During campaign, Veldheer clarified in a closley phrased manner that even then seemed to contradic. someone that signed an R-71 petition:
I support the city policy for equal benefits for same sex domestic partners.  I am a member of the orthodox Presbyterian church and my religious faith will have no bearing on the decisions I will make as a civic leader on the Olympia city council.  I believe in a separation of Church and State.  Further, the state of Washington provides over 200 civil rights, many of which are very important to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered communities, and I support these laws as well.   But, she was willing to work towards overturning one of those rights.

Anyway, Veldeer lost that November to Karen Rogers who maybe even better embodies what I'm actually trying to write about. That when politics of a community are narrowed down to a single issue, you get really crappy politics.

2009 in Olympia politics was all about development on a strip of land downtown called the isthmus (its really an urbanized earthen dam, but who's really counting?). Even the secondary issue of council relations with the public was also about the isthmus, because some in the public thought they weren't being listened to.

Both Karen Rogers and Karen Veldheer came from the side of town politics that were hard against the isthmus development and thought the council was being pretty tin-eared. But, Veldheer would have been an odd fit in Olympia politics had she won or continued being involved. And, Karen Rogers really did end up being an odd fit.

As she settled into her seat, Rogers eventually became the lone vote against any sort of government activism. Its hard to think that Olympia had elected a small government, fiscal conservative, but there she was. The fog of the isthmus issue had obscured Rogers' politics.

Too the point that when she ran for county commissioner, Rogers sometimes acted more conservative than the Republican:
Her initial campaign spin for county commission builds common cause with conservatives and south county residents. In an interview with Janine Unsoeld, Rogers even played up how STOP Thurston organizers thanked her for a city council vote. While this may disturb lefties who supported her mayoral run, pivoting to the right makes electoral sense because that could discourage a Republican candidate from entering the race. Rogers’ chances increase from iffy to decent if she doesn’t have to run against both Wolfe and a Republican candidate in a primary.Then again, some described Rogers  then (where libertarian left and right meet) the same way I described Sue Gunn here. And, Gunn did pretty well in Olympia against a typical business friendly Democrat.

That said, I still think local elections are better when they're broader than one issue, one building or what we should do on one single block. We elected local politicians to do a lot of things. And, with the collapse of the economy in 2008 and the quick council action, it didn't take long for any development in downtown to disappear.  We still expect these people to govern well outside of hot button issues.

Everyone's a NIMBY

Everyday Olympia - Mon, 03/10/2014 - 9:38am
Everyone's a NIMBY:

And no one truly makes this town their own. 

Spring is rebirth and passing (Olyblogosphere for March 10, 2014)

Olympia Time - Mon, 03/10/2014 - 5:52am
1. Everyday Olympia is back! And, pointing to a really nice Sunday morning conversation about Olympia.

2. Berd's ears were hurt by the fairly common sign of spring, the Pacific tree frog.

3. The late Joe Dear honored in a Youtube upload at Evergreen. Apparently Dear didn't like being called "John Dear." I once heard about an interoffice delivery that was sent back from the governor's office because it was addressed to John Dear. Nope, no John Dear here.

4. There was a stickup at out SPSCC and some sort of system didn't work.

5. And, the rebirth of a massive awesome building project in downtown Olympia, covered by Janine's Little Hollywood.

The biggest issue with the bioregional map of Cascadia

Olympia Time - Thu, 03/06/2014 - 7:51am
Is that it isn't a bioregional map of Cascadia. Fellow Olympian Matthew Green commented awhile ago:

The upper Columbia watershed has more ecological similarity to the upper Colorado watershed than to the lower Columbia. Consider that a relatively modest (geologically speaking) change in topology could join them into a single watershed, thus radically altering the watershed-defined "bioregion" but without fundamentally changing their ecology.  So, to illustrate this, here's that classic map of the Cascadian bioregion:

Here's the Forest Service map of eco-regions, zooming into Cascadia:

This map looks much more like the coastal Cascadia map I was rooting for here.
The larger bioregional map, I think, is a much more expansionist idea of Cascadia, pushing the borders out towards where Cascadia doesn't really exist right now. Or may ever. I don't think its a coincidence that this map is also more attached to those folks that are also expressly seccesionist. These are both Cascadia's that don't yet exist.
But, I'm more worried about Cascadias that already exist, socially, politically and ecologically. Or, at Matthew would say:
I don't think it's a coincidence that the map which emphasizes human cultural similarities actually does a better job of showing ecological zones than the bioregion map does.

Lunch, Old School Style

Everyday Olympia - Mon, 03/03/2014 - 2:09pm
Lunch, Old School Style: Great pic by terryz2 on Instagram

Pizza anyone, with a side of 80’s hard rock and pinball?

'Urban Courtyard' in Downtown

Everyday Olympia - Mon, 03/03/2014 - 12:27pm
'Urban Courtyard' in Downtown: The council also is expected to approve the transfer of $142,000 to a fund designated for construction of a parking lot for city vehicles at the Artesian Commons. Located at 415 Fourth Avenue, the future “urban courtyard” is home to the historic artesian well. The Artesian Commons’ 0.2-acre site will become an official city park that hosts live entertainment and food trucks. Opening day is set for May 3.

The paywall to public records in Washington State

Olympia Time - Mon, 03/03/2014 - 7:45am
If you request a digital public record from a city, ditch district, or state agency in Washington State, they're instructed to turn it over to you for free.

If you request a public record from a court, say a 16 page court filing on a medical marijuana case, that is going to cost you nearly $30. For a record that already exists in a database.

Until recently I'd assumed Thurston County was a special case. That our clerks office was one of the few charging outrageous fees for public records. But, because of a bill passed in 2005, every county clerk in Washington State is required to establish a paywall to digital public records.

Being able to read a 16 page public document shouldn't cost almost $30.

Court funding in 2005
SB 5454 was introduced to the legislature in January after years of discussions and meetings by judges and other court officials throughout Washington. The Board for Judicial Administration established a task force on court funding in 2002. At that point, judges had complained that local governments routinely stripped courts of funding when times got tight.

The idea was to give local and other courts more stable and dedicated funding. After just over two years of meetings, the end result was a bill that increased existing fees established a long series of new fees for citizens interacting with the courts.

One of the fees included being able to access county clerk records:
For preparing a certified copy of an instrument on file or of record in the clerk's office, for the first page or portion of the first page, a fee of five dollars, and for each additional page or portion of a page, a fee of one dollar must be charged. For authenticating or exemplifying an instrument, a fee of two dollars for each additional seal affixed must be charged. For preparing a copy of an instrument on file or of record in the clerk's office without a seal, a fee of fifty cents per page must be charged. When copying a document without a seal or file that is in an electronic format, a fee of twenty-five cents per page must be charged. For copies made on a compact disc, an additional fee of twenty dollars for each compact disc must be charged.Certified copy for lawyers vs. non-certified for me
I highlighted the passages up there that I consider important for this discussion. The fee for a "certified" copy many be high, but that is because there is an extra level of human review for those copies. Only certified copies of court records can be used in courts, so lawyers accessing those records need to have them looked at by a clerk official before they're deemed certified.

On the other hand, non-certified digital versions (which can't be used in court and are only informational) have a fee of 25 cents per page. This is where the paywall to public records goes up.

Let's take a step back and talk about what sort of records we're talking about. Clerk records include any sort of action or filing with a local court. These could be a lawsuit filed against your town's largest employer. It could be a court order against an elected official. These are the raw data or an entire portion of our government, and they are hidden behind a special paywall that no other public record in Washington is allowed to use.

Like the Thurston County Clerk's office, many county clerks maintain a database of all clerk records. If you made a similar request to a non-court government agency with a similar database, the Washington Administrative Code strongly suggests that "(t)he agency cannot attempt to charge a per-page amount for a paper copy when it has an electronic copy that can be easily provided at nearly no cost."

PRA vs. Common Law
As surprising as it may sound, court records are not covered under the Public Records Act. That said, "common law right of access to judicial records is well recognized in this country." This means, that while no legislation exists specifically allowing public access to these kinds of public documents, enough traditional and case law exists to assume there is a right.

That said, there obviously isn't enough of a right to make it easy for citizens to access their own court records. You should have to pay almost $30 to read a 16 page court filing in a case regarding statewide ballot initiative.

Easy fix
The fix is easy. All we need to do is drop the fee for non-certified copies of court records that already exist in a digital format.

This wouldn't exactly be a hit to the budget of county clerks throughout the state. When I contacted my clerk last summer, I learned that while it cost $60,000 to maintain the entire records system, requests only brought in about $40,000. And, just over a quarter of those documents came through the sytsem's online database (or ecommerce system).

Even if half of the e-commerce documents were non-certified, then it would be a very small portion of the income coming from citizens literally looking to read a public document. The vast majority of the fees would be from lawyers or other folks looking for useable in court certified documents.

I wonder how many people who are sad...

Everyday Olympia - Sun, 03/02/2014 - 10:26pm
I wonder how many people who are sad...:

I wonder how many people who are sad that the Toy Store and Alpine closed also voted against economic development in downtown. Put a park where the toy store was and all is good.

Some great comments in this Facebook thread.

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