Data features blog entries on public records and government accountability.

Local Government Online Transparency: A Work In Progress


As the news ecosystem continues to reformulate, community stakeholders have an even greater need for direct access to timely, high-news value government information. The convenience of Internet delivery, a growing profile for government Web sites and databases, and the early mainstreaming of the notion of online transparency all combine to raise expectations that more of the right stuff, well-formatted and easily found, will be available online.

There are a lot of layers to this and we won't even try to cover it all in this post. Let's focus today on some of the basic building blocks. A good place to start is close to home.

Assessments of local government transparency require a look at online meeting agendas of city council and school boards to see what's in them, or not. Collectively, dozens of taxing bodies in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties are modeling voluntary transparency by ensuring that separate links to individual documents corresponding to the different board business items are embedded in each online meeting agenda.

Meet the Public Data Ferret - he digs so you don't have to


Editor's Note: InvestigateWest introduces new blogger Matt Rosenberg, aka the Public Data Ferret, who digs deep to shed light on public institutions. Here's his first blog.

Suppose the company you were considering as an insurance provider had been sanctioned for overcharging 2,134 auto policyholders by almost $600,000 total, by dropping their multi-vehicle discounts due to an error during a computer system upgrade?

Suppose they were disciplined for inflating premiums with unauthorized policy additions? Or had their license revoked for insolvency?

What if the insurer had been ordered to cease and desist from blatantly deceptive marketing of a so-called long term health care plan that turned out to be nothing more than a bare-bones accident policy? Imagine that the friendly local insurance agent you were going to entrust with your premiums had actually had their license revoked for pocketing payments from other customers instead of executing policies, or was convicted for felony grand theft, or embezzlement of his dead mother's Veterans Administration checks?

You'd probably want to know who's in the rogue's gallery and who's not. Which is that much easier in the state of Washington thanks to one more user-friendly government database, this one from the state insurance commissioner's office.  At Public Data Ferret site is a tutorial on how to use the state's database for insurance consumers.

Rita Hibbard's picture

Meters for homeless people? Not those kind of meters

Springfield, OR, just became the latest city to add "parking meters" to its streets as a way to reduce panhandling and pay for services for people who are without homes.

They've installed  "meters." So instead of paying a quarter or two for a half hour of parking, passersby  plug 50-cents in the red parking meters to provide a shower for a homeless person. You can do more -- $1 is a hot meal, $3 is a bus pass and $5 supplies a sleeping bag. The Eugene Register Guard reports the program is administered by St. Vincent De Paul, which collects the money and makes sure it goes directly into services for homeless people.

The Springfield effort is modeled on a program in Denver, which helped get folks off the street and into shelter. A report there found that after 18 months the project resulted in a 92 percent reduction in the number of panhandlers in the downtown improvement district. They've also caught on around the country and in Canada, including Montreal and Ottawa. Portland, just up I-5, also has a "meters for the homeless" effort underway.

Some homeless advocates, however, don't like the concept, as Matt Palmquist reported in Miller-McCune Online.

Rita Hibbard's picture

Gray whale dies bringing us a message -- with stomach full of plastic trash

When news that a dead gray whale had washed up on the shores of Puget Sound in West Seattle recently, its stomach full of human trash, I immediately thought of a series of stunning but horrific photographs I had recently experienced -- Seattle photographer Chris Jordan's work on the albatrosses of Midway Island who unintentionally kill their newborns feeding them our brightly colored garbage.

The gray whale was dead, but had been in good health. A bottom feeder, it had ingested about 20 plastic bags, surgical gloves, plastic pieces, a pair of sweat pants, a golf ball, and other cast-off bits of our lives. It was the fifth dead gray whale to be found in two weeks on Puget Sound, according to the Cascadia Research Collective.  Several of those whales were malnourished. The photo above, by Cascadia Research of Olympia, WA,  shows researchers near the whale.

Jordan's photographs show image after image of albatross chicks who have died after their parents have flown out over the ocean, bringing back deadly "meals" stuffed in their own beaks. The adult birds cannot distinguish between the plastic floating in the ocean and real food they need to feed their babies. As Jordan writes on his Web site:

Rita Hibbard's picture

Health care reform brings a price tag worth paying

It’s historic. And it’s over.

What’s amazing is that it took so much vitriol. But change always does. Especially social change.

I need look no farther than my own extended family, where two members with a recent history of cancer, unlikely to ever get insured on their own dime without health care reform because of those pre-existing conditions, vehemently opposed the idea of health care reform. Somehow, they had been persuaded by the right that  it was in their interests to be against the very idea of reforming the health insurance system, ignoring the fact that the health care lobby fought hard and donated big to preserve the status quo.

That’s a position understandable for those safely ensconced in the shelter of a larger corporation who can count on not losing their jobs (whoever they are), or for those on the public payroll who can count on not losing their jobs (another pretty small group, I would think) , but one of these family members was recently laid off, and the other is unable to work and uninsured because of his illness. Yet the ire and bile of the fight was so extreme that they were unable to see their own benefit in health care reform. Instead, they see health care reform as a move toward socialism, as un-American. Even though implementation of health care reform offered direct benefit to both of them, they vehemently opposed it. Many of those in support of health care reform perhaps failed to appreciate the depth of that opposition.

Of course, most of those protesting health care reform had health care coverage. They were the easy ones for the right to fire up. Many of those interviewed at anti-reform rallies were on Medicare (a government plan) or were well-covered by their employer, as are most Americans.

Rita Hibbard's picture

Putting together health care reform with holdouts and back benchers

It’s a dizzying, high wire act that’s now on display in Washington, D.C. It’s called putting a health care reform bill together. And just watching it happen is crazy-making. The vote could come as soon as this weekend.

President Obama is trying to rope them in – bringing together holdouts like abortion opponents who fear the bill expands access to abortion, and liberals arguing the bill does not go far enough to expand access to health care, in support of historic reform that could overhaul the nation’s health care system. And keeping track of the moving parts is a full-time job.

 But the parts are moving. A key Democratic holdout, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, became the first liberal opponent of the House bill to announce support for the more restrictive Senate legislation, the Los Angeles Times reported. At the same time, a key anti-abortion Democrat, Rep. Dale E. Kildee of Michigan, said he also would support the bill.

"If I can vote for this bill, there are not many others that shouldn't be able to," said Kucinich, a leader of the movement to provide universal healthcare by offering the Medicare program to all Americans. Among social conservatives, the legislation won an important new endorsement from dozens of leaders of Catholic nuns, including a group that says it represents more than 90% of the 59,000 nuns in the United States. That contrasted with the staunch opposition of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which issued a statement Monday arguing that the bill would not adequately guard against using federal funds for abortion. The nuns disagreed, and so did a retired bishop.

Rita Hibbard's picture

Students join "National Day of Action" to protest tuition hikes

Students in Seattle, Bellingham, Olympia, Portland, Berkeley and in college towns across the nation Thursday raised voices and waved protest signs against rising tuition and fees that threaten access to higher education.

It was called a "National Day of Action." It was bigger on some campuses, where hundreds turned out, and smaller on others, like Bellingham, where only about 20 students turned out. Nationally, tens of thousands of students protested.


In photo at left, seniors Lauren Yee (left) and Tessa Marcovitch march with other protesters across the Western Washington University campus. In lower photo, junior John Morgan protests budget cuts to financial aid. Photos by Lillian Furlong for InvestigateWest.


At Portland State University, about 200 students came out to protest. At the University of Washington, where students paid a 14 percent tuition increase last year and face another 14 percent hike this year, hundreds turned out.

In Bellingham, Western Washington University student Tessa Marcovitch is graduating in June, but said she joined the protest because she "wants the next generation to have a chance to get an education."

John Morgan, 20, joined the Bellingham protest to add his voice to those in opposition to budget cuts to financial aid. Students at all public colleges and universities in Washington face potentially stiff tuition increases next year, with looming and as yet unfilled budget deficits.

Rita Hibbard's picture

Risky business - food poisoning cost Americans $152 billion annually

With a couple of Washington and Oregon state cheese recalls fresh in our memories this month, and a history of fatal E. coli poisoning that swept through a Washington state fast food chain in the 1990s, we should pay attention to a new report that food-borne illnesses such as E. coli and salmonella cost this country $152 billion annually in health care and other losses.

The report, from the Pew Charitable Trusts, is much higher than the earllier figure of $35 billion reported by the Agriculture Department in 1997. The illnesses sicken some 76 million people annually.

Include in that list a college student from South Carolina, hospitalized for a week in May after developing an E. coli 0157 infection from eating a bite of packaged chocolate chip cookie dough. That strain of bacteria can cause severe illness, kidney failure and even death. The suspected source of contamination: flour, and the company, Nestle, recalled the refrigerated product after illnesses in 28 states, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Not all are so lucky as college student Margo Moskowtiz. The government estimates that 5,000 of those who become ill die.

New food-safety legislation would give the federal Food and Drug Adminstration new powers to enforce food safety laws and prevent food contamination. The House has passed a new food safety bill, and the measure awaits a full vote in the Senate.