Open government needs a vigilant champion

The News TribuneFebruary 1, 2013 

When it comes to being as open with citizens as required by state law, government doesn’t always get it right.

One thing it is doing right: employing a person whose sole job is to increase openness whenever possible. That’s the open-government ombudsman in the state Attorney General’s Office, a post created in 2005 by former Attorney General Rob McKenna and held since 2007 by Tim Ford.

In 2008, the position was a casualty of budget cuts and became part time. New Attorney General Bob Ferguson ought to preserve it and return it to full-time status as soon as feasible.

The ombudsman fulfills a vital role in government. Officials – both elected and appointed – all too often consider denying access to be the easy default position. Ford, an attorney well-versed in open government, can tell them when they are required by the state’s Open Public Meetings Act to provide access to the public and news organizations and when they must release records under the Public Records Act.

He can answer questions from citizens and media representatives about whether they do indeed have a right to attend a certain meeting or gain access to particular documents.

Besides answering more than 500 inquiries a year, the ombudsmen coordinates the attorney general’s legislative and policy efforts on open meetings and records. He drafts legislation, works with lawmakers to get it passed, writes resource material for the office, and speaks to citizen and agency groups about open-government laws.

The ombudsman also serves on the Public Records Exemption Accountability Committee, which reviews more than 300 exemptions from public disclosure, recommends changes to the Legislature and co-chairs the Eminent Domain Task Force.

That’s a lot for a part-time position. And there will be even more work for the ombudsman if legislation Ferguson is backing passes this session.

House Bill 1198 would require that public officials and employees receive training on the laws regarding public records and open meetings. If the bill passes, Ford would provide that training, which could be delivered in an online format to conserve resources.

The public has a stake in making government as open and accessible as possible. Passing HB 1198 and returning the ombudsman to full-time status are two ways to help make that happen.

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