Put limits on gubernatorial secrecy

The News TribuneOctober 23, 2013 

The state Supreme Court’s disappointing decision giving broad “executive privilege” to Washington governors should not be the last word on the subject. State voters have consistently supported the principle of open government and access to public records.

Last week’s 8-1 ruling allows governors to keep secret documents that are used in making policy choices, but leaves interpretation of what falls into that category largely up to the governor’s office. Citizens and the media would still have the right to sue for access — if they can afford it, of course — and the burden would be on them to prove why documents should be released.

We agree with the lone dissenter, Justice James Johnson, who wrote that the decision “does great damage to over 120 years of open government in Washington,” and that it “could place a shroud of secrecy over much government conduct, unless changed by a wiser court, electorate or legislature.”

Toward that end, it is welcome news that state Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, said she plans to introduce a constitutional amendment “to ensure this loophole in our state’s constitution is removed.” Roach, who chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee, is also a member of the Sunshine Committee, which makes recommendations to repeal or amend exemptions to the Public Records Act. The rest of the South Sound legislative delegation should support her proposal.

Gov. Jay Inslee has said he would not invoke executive privilege unless it is explicitly provided by the Legislature or by a public vote. That’s a wise move, but Roach’s approach is still needed to address future holders of that office.

In other open-government news, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson has decided to again make the position of open government ombudsman a full-time job. The assistant attorney general in that position would promote transparency in state and local government, address citizens’ inquiries and help resolve disputes. The ombudsman was reduced to part-time status in 2011 as a budget-cutting measure.

The state Supreme Court’s recent decision shows that the job of ensuring open government is never done. Ferguson made the right move in bringing the ombudsman on full-time again.

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