A matter of public records: challenges in the quest for transparency

Click the Los Angeles Times image of farmworkers silhouetted in front of an indigo sky and the headline of the publication’s 12/9/19 article, “Berry farm company fined $3.5 million over worker abuses” to access the article on their website

March 31, 2022 Dena Jensen

From some of my experiences and observations over the course of the last year, I would say that we are in a period where the tools for community members in Whatcom County to hold their elected and appointed officials accountable are more challenging to employ in some ways. There are at least some public records requests that are being filled more slowly than they were in years past, and rules around providing open public comment at local government meetings have fluctuated, with some opportunities to do so in the City of Bellingham having been eliminated. It remains to be seen if this pans out to be a temporary phenomenon or one that we continue to increasingly struggle with.

Four months ago on November 23, 2021, my partner Sandy submitted a public records request to Whatcom County. She received the first installment of 27 emails this week on March 29, 2022. While it wasn’t what might be considered an extremely simple request – for a single document, for example – the requested material only covered a period of 9 days, November 15-23 of last year, from six Whatcom County officials, and was related to a very specific topic:

“I request any and all written records related to Whatcom County potentially partnering with and or contracting with Munger Bros./Sarbanand Farms in providing housing for people displaced by the recent flooding in Whatcom County.” 

Sandy Robson is an investigative writer and founder of The Searchlight Review. She has written four different reports about Sarbanand Farms’ (Munger Bros. is their parent company) various violations of health, safety, and agricultural employment standards based on material obtained through public records requests.

Both Sandy and I have individually submitted numerous public records requests over the years which we have used to bring forth facts and perspective to the public related to social and political issues involving our government agencies.

On March 1, 2022, Whatcom County Council Members attended a three hour retreat which, according to the agenda was, “to discuss general rules, policies, and procedures related to Council business.” One of the topics covered was Washington State’s Public Records Act.

During this special meeting of the County Council’s, their legal counsel, Karen Frakes, raised the issue of challenges Whatcom County was having in fulfilling requests over the last year, especially since the recent retirement of their long-time Public Records Officer Mark Burnfield. Frakes began this part of the presentation at about the 1:10:45 point in the meeting recording by saying:

“You may have noticed this, but I just wanted to start out by saying that the County has – not just the County, but I think all agencies, probably all over the country, have experienced a significant increase in Public Records Act – or public records requests in the last year. And they’ve also, at least we’ve noticed – and I think it’s also true elsewhere, at least in Washington – that these requests have been broader than ever before. And unfortunately, under the act, you can be very broad with your requests. And I say unfortunately, because obviously, because that creates a – quite a task, not only for our public records officer, but for all of the departments impacted by a public records request.”

I think, as community members wanting to engage with, hold accountable, and better understand the actions of our local government officials, many of us may feel that the unfortunate part is that an ample number of employees or critical resources are not currently available to provide the community with public records in a timely manner.

It was dismaying enough for Sandy to receive the initial estimate from the current Whatcom County Public Records Officer, Tammy Dixon, that the records she was requesting about Sarbanand Farms would not be available until February 1, 2022. These were records that were related to Whatcom County funding actions that had the potential to support unsafe temporary housing arrangements for people who had been displaced by the unprecedented November flooding in the Nooksack Valley.

However, there was some hope to be found in Dixon’s estimate because she stated the County would supply the material sooner, if possible. This is a fairly standard assurance that is offered in the estimates given by government agencies regarding providing requested records, and it does sometimes happen that records are provided significantly in advance of an anticipated release date.

This was not the case with the records related to Sarbanand Farms.

Moreover, during the same period that Sandy was waiting for the Sarbanand-related records, I also had an outstanding public records request with Whatcom County, which I had placed at the beginning of January 2022, a couple months after Sandy’s November 2021 request.

My request was for public records related to the communications agency that Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham had contracted with to develop a homeless communications strategy. My request was for records that spanned a longer period, from October 2021 through the beginning of January 2022, and sought records from potentially more than double the number of County employees than Sandy’s request.

Dixon responded to my request with an anticipated release date for records responsive to my request of one month later, February 4, 2022. When I had not yet received them by the afternoon of that date, I had written to follow up on them and received a response indicating that additional time was needed to provide them, and it might take until March 4 for me to receive them. I followed up again when I had not received any communications by March 12, and was ultimately provided a first installment of records by March 14, 2022.

Meanwhile, Sandy was still waiting for records she had requested long before I had requested mine. She wrote Dixon again on Friday, March 25 and finally received her first installment of responsive records on Tuesday, March 29, with an estimated release date of April 26, 2022 for the next installment.

It’s hard to say why these records related to Whatcom County providing funds for Sarbanand Farms farmworker housing to house flood victims are being so challenging to obtain. What we do know from the records provided is that in response to objections from community members about the County’s involvement in providing this particular temporary housing, some officials were dismissing the need to consult with farmworker advocates or further investigate whether people staying at the housing would be safe in the hands of Sarbanand Farms.

Since I was familiar with Washington State Department of Labor & Industries records of their investigations and findings of Sarbanand Farms’ violations of health, safety, and agricultural employment standards, I had written an email to County officials on November 22, 2022 about this issue.

I was concerned for the safety of people potentially staying at the housing. In addition, I did not understand why farmworker advocacy organizations, such as Community to Community Development – who had provided aid and support to Sarbanand Farms’ H-2A farmworkers who had been mistreated and subsequently displaced from the farm’s housing – had not been consulted before County officials made the decision to offer funds toward the use of that housing for flood victims.

Additionally on the next day, Sandy had sent an email to County officials offering details and references regarding legal actions taken in regard to Sarbanand Farms’ violations.

Click the screenshot of page 1 of Sandy Robson’s 11/23/21 email to Whatcom County officials regarding their support of using Sarbanand Farms temporary housing for Whatcom County flood victims to view the full email

Both of these emails were included in records that were provided in Sandy’s first installment of public records from Whatcom County. There was also a record that showed County Executive Satpal Sidhu had forwarded my email to the small city mayors of Everson, Lynden, and Sumas, letting them know he was doing so because:

“I just wanted you to know that how people can come up with their own little inhibitions about volunteers who want to help during this catastrophe.”

At the bottom of this report are links to a few of the emails, email chains, and attachments included in Whatcom County’s first installment of records provided to Sandy Robson on March 29, 2022. Some contact information of private community members has been redacted by me to honor their privacy, however these are all records that are publicly available.

In the meantime, it seems to be better timing than ever to stay engaged in issues related to the safety of our community members in crisis, along with monitoring and fostering the systems that are in place to provide us legal resources to engage with our representatives in positions of power and continue to help hold them accountable for their actions.