Donna Zink’s tenacious pursuit to gather the names of Level I sex offenders and post them online has evoked both criticism and support.
Depending on the way you lean, the Mesa woman is either a vigilante or a champion of the Washington Public Records Act.
Maybe, she is both.
The point of the law, though, is that public records should be public — regardless of why someone wants to see them.
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Zink’s efforts in this particular case have brought that message home.
Ramsey Ramerman, an attorney who represents agencies facing public records lawsuits, recently said that Zink is among the “heroes of open government” in Washington state.
This is high praise coming from a man who helped represent Mesa when Zink took the small town to court over public records violations.
He understands, though, that it sometimes takes one determined individual to hold government agencies accountable.
The purpose of the public records act is so people can be informed about the workings of public agencies. It does not give public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know — or not to know.
Zink embraces this ideal.
As promised, Zink this fall posted a spreadsheet with names of 21,000 registered sex offenders in Washington. Two-thirds were considered at low risk to reoffend, and had been excluded previously from the public database that lists Level II and Level III offenders.
So far, the release of names has not resulted in the catastrophe and retribution that opponents feared.
Zink’s website has attracted many visitors, but as of this writing, she has had one phone call related to her list — and it was not from one of the offenders.
Law enforcement officials with the state patrol and Franklin County also said no incidents have been reported since Zink’s list went public.
That does not mean, however, that in time someone may face difficulties because a past conviction is now public.
But the public records law should not be blamed if that happens. A review of the public registry system for sex offenders would be more appropriate.
Zink’s legal saga began in 2013 when she could not find in a public sex offender database the name of someone she knew was convicted of a sex crime.
That was when she discovered that Level I offenders were excluded from the public registry under the Community Protection Act.
Zink believes these people also should be included in the database. She asked for information on Level I offenders from Franklin County, and the county complied.
She asked for the same records in Benton County, but hit a roadblock when the county first notified more than 400 offenders of her request. Three “John Does” sued and received an injunction to stop the release.
Zink persisted in her mission, and eventually found herself at odds with the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU tried to prevent the public naming of Level I offenders on the grounds that, since they were unlikely to reoffend, they should not be identified because it would put them at risk of “being harassed, assaulted or losing jobs or housing.”
The issue ended up before the state Supreme Court, and Zink won.
We have to admit, she is a protector of public access. Zink knows her rights, and is willing to go to the end to defend them.