Walla Walla County’s TaxSifter property search engine on the Internet has been an excellent service. It has allowed citizens to easily and quickly access public information regarding property taxes and ownership.
But the service is no longer user friendly nor as helpful. County Treasurer Gordon Heimbigner decided this week not to allow searches by name.
The reason cited for the decision, although certainly well meaning, is not a credible.
Heimbigner said the search-by-name function was disabled because two law enforcement officials — one in Colorado, the other in Texas — were recently murdered in their homes. There is no indication that a TaxSifter program or any other government-based database was used to get the addresses of the victims.
Without a doubt the murder of law enforcement officers — or, frankly, anybody — in their homes or anywhere else is horrific. Reasonable steps should always be taken to prevent murders.
What Heimbigner has done won’t make anybody safer, but it will create hassles for citizens seeking information. After all, the information is still — as it should be — public information. And searches by name can still be obtained if someone were to call or visit the Treasurer’s or Auditor’s offices.
If people are plotting murders of law enforcement officials wouldn’t they simply call, or have someone call for them (to throw police off the trail), a county office to get the address? Even if they don’t call the county, the information might available from other sources on the Internet (Facebook) or in directories (such as the phone book).
Heimbigner’s decision was a result of a question posed by county Undersheriff Edward Freyer to the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. He asked, in the wake of the murders, about protecting law enforcement officials from having their home addresses made public. Freyer said he did not specifically request the search by name function be disabled.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jesse Nolte then sent an email to Heimbigner on the subject.
“After consulting with the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office we decided to turn off the search by name function,” Heimbigner said.
The decision curbs the people’s access to their information. It might violate state law regarding public records. Prosecuting Attorney Jim Nagle is now researching the matter.
If specific threats to a law enforcement officer’s life or an entire agency are known — two big IFs — a narrow, focused effort to limit access of an address could be taken through a court order.
Regardless of the legality of curbing access to TaxSifter, we would hope Heimbigner would rethink his decision. It is the public, the taxpayers, who have lost in having access to the information curbed.