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This news media blog explores the nexus between the press, the public and technology with two missions. One, to engage citizens in an online conversation about the role of the news media in their lives, in the hope that they will use and critique the media more effectively. And secondly to explore how the press can remain relevant, essential and accountable to citizens and communities.

Mike Fancher is Editor at Large of The Seattle Times.

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April 10, 2008 11:45 AM

Secrecy spreads like fire in the Santa Ana winds

Posted by Mike Fancher

Press Here
for a cautionary tale about abuse of public records secrecy in the OC.

The Orange County Register discovered there are 996,716 vehicles registered to California motorists who are affiliated with 1,800 state and local agencies and who are allowed to hide their home addresses under a Confidential Records Program. The Register said its investigation "has found that the program, designed 30 years ago to protect police from criminals, has been expanded to cover hundreds of thousands of public employees - from police dispatchers to museum guards - who face little threat from the public. Their spouses and children can get the plates, too."

The Register found that the confidential plate program shields these motorists in ways most of us can only dream about:

* Vehicles with protected license plates can run through dozens of intersections controlled by red light cameras and breeze along the 91 toll lanes with impunity.

* Parking citations issued to vehicles with protected plates are often dismissed because the process necessary to pierce the shield is too cumbersome.

* Some patrol officers let drivers with protected plates off with a warning because the plates signal that the drivers are "one of their own" or related to someone who is.

Another example of abuse was vehicles that go through automated toll booths without paying and typically aren't tracked down and fined.

The Register used public records laws to obtain OCTA computer logs for the 91 (freeway) Express Lanes and found 14,535 unpaid trips by motorists with confidential plates in the past five years. A Register analysis showed that was 3,722 separate vehicles, some running the toll road hundreds of times.

Kudos to the Register for diligent journalism, revealing how a government secrecy program with limited intent grew incrementally over time and inevitably came to be badly misused.

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