We all have a right to know what our government agencies are doing

September 9, 2012 

You would think that in a democracy, all you have to do to participate in public policy is find out when people meet and then attend. You would think that all you have to do to see the records that government produces is simply ask to see the records.

You would, of course, be wrong. Some meetings are not announced. Some records prove difficult, or impossible, to get access to.

In my experience in eight years as a local elected official in Lakewood, every person I ever met in government who was trying to hide information was not doing so with evil intent. I never met a single person who thought they were chipping away at democracy.

Who you meet instead are people who are mostly or totally ignorant of the law. They’ve never seen any reason to think through the underlying philosophy behind the laws even though the laws usually scream for transparency. Sometimes you do meet people who know the laws but tell themselves that somehow the world is a better place if they act in secret anyway.

In this environment, you can’t expect to stumble into healthy democracy. That’s why the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG) and the League of Women Voters of Tacoma/Pierce County are sponsoring a program about Washington’s public records and open meetings laws on Sept. 19 (see below for details).

The forum will be held at The News Tribune, which is fitting since if you read this paper regularly you have a pretty good idea of the complexity in practice of open government.

For example, in his Aug. 19 column, Peter Callaghan – who will moderate the forum – used the public records laws to show that the state’s redistricting commission let politics sway its decisions. Nobody expects a redistricting commission to decide districts on the basis of mountain ranges and city boundaries. That would be naive. But Callaghan’s work illuminated just how concerned incumbents were with protecting their re-election.

Thanks to the public records act, Callaghan was able to ask a pretty tough question: If we don’t let state government use our tax dollars to campaign for candidates, then why is a state-supported redistricting commission all about advancing candidates?

Meanwhile earlier this summer, reporter Sean Robinson surveyed the public records policies of 22 local court systems. He found that some courts demand people pay to see public documents, while other courts just flatly deny access. Yikes. If compliance with the law is an issue with the court system, then of course it’s going to be an issue for any other level of government.

These issues stretch far behind Pierce County. The state Supreme Court had to weigh in recently on a case involving an accident victim demanding traffic records in Seattle. The state tried to claim the records were part of a federally protected database, but thankfully the justices recognized that an open government is . . . well, open.

As we agreed earlier, these things should be simple. Hence the need for events such as the Sept. 19 forum, which will include panelists sharing information and answer questions. Here’s the lineup:

 • WCOG president and Kirkland City Council member Toby Nixon, a former state legislator

 • State Assistant Attorney General Tim Ford

 • State Archivist Jerry Handfield

 • State Auditor Brian Sonntag

WCOG is a nonpartisan and nonprofit group of individuals and organizations dedicated to strengthening and preserving the public’s right to know what its government is doing. Members come from all sides of the political spectrum because we’re united in a belief that only by comparing knowledge and advice can we open government to more light.

This forum is free, open to all, and questions and comments from the audience are encouraged. At least that much is simple.

Walter Neary served on the Lakewood City Council from 2004 through 2011 and is a board member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

Learn more: A free forum on Washington’s public records and open meetings law will be held at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 19 at The News Tribune, 1950 S. State St., Tacoma. Columnist Peter Callaghan will moderate.

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