Saturday, May 20, 2006

UW Losing Accountability

I was saddened to discover this week that I'd completely missed this
months UW Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) meeting. I say
this months but since the meetings really only happen a few times
per year, if you miss one you find yourself waiting a long time until
the next one (the next scheduled meeting is in September). I thought
I'd find consolation in the fact that I could obtain an audio copy of
the meeting but discovered that as of the May meeting, the UW
will no longer make audio recordings.

That's bad news for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is public
oversight. The UW IBC meetings have been recorded for years,
"something they were doing when I took over" according to
Susan Alexander of EH&S. EH&S had them recorded so they
could later use the audio to make more accurate meeting minutes.
So why the change? Susan says it was because the AG
(Attorney General) found out they'd been recording the meetings
and said they had to stop because the UW didn't have permission
from the individuals involved.

Really? So what's the big deal with asking permission of the
participants? It's not like one doesn't know (as in a phone
conversation) if one is being recorded since there are four large
microphones sitting on the table when one arrives at the meeting.
How hard would it be to verbally ask participants at the beginning
of the meeting when, say, they are being asked "did everyone
receive a copy of the last meeting minutes?" or "is there is anything
anyone would like to add to the agenda" to ask "is there is anyone
who objects to audio recording the meeting"?

And since when are meetings that are held at public institutions,
attended by public employees, doing the publics business (and
in this case overseeing public safety) off limits to electronic
recordings? I understand the concept of if there are portions of
meetings where for reasons of security or proprietary information
that the public be excluded but that's not the case here.

And it's not just that the UW isn't going to record the meetings,
the public won't be allowed to record them either. That's important
to note. I'd gotten permission to videotape the January IBC meeting
and was prepared to do so but didn't exercise my right when I saw
that a sufficient audio recording was being made of that meeting.
I later obtained a copy through the UWs Office of Open Records
and Public Meetings and it is this act that I believe began the ball
rolling towards where we are now. I did the crazy thing of taking a
recording of an open meeting and putting both the audio and a
transcript of the same up on the internet for the public to access.
It's something I think all public institutions should do automatically
(without being asked) but very few do. From that transcript I later
sent out a press release pointing out some disturbing incidents that
had been brought up at the January IBC meeting. As a concerned
citizen I felt it was important to report to the public what the UW
was doing (since clearly no one else was) with regard to biosafety
issues and their potential impacts on public health and our economy.

To that end, I hope that people will support keeping the UW IBC
meetings open to all and allowing both EH&S and the public to
record them.


Mike McCormick


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