The Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG) presented its Key Award to Gov. Jay Inslee last week. It’s a recognition given to individuals or groups who have done “something notable to further the cause of open government.”
Inslee deserved the award for announcing that he would not use the power of executive privilege to shield his office’s communication from disclosure under the 41-year-old Public Records Act (PRA). He is the first Washington governor to make such a public declaration.
The governor campaigned on this promise and reaffirmed it in October after a state Supreme Court decision said his office was constitutionally entitled to decline public records requests. The court’s opinion arose from a lawsuit filed by the Freedom Foundation to obtain certain records from former Gov. Christine Gregoire.
The Senate Government Operations committee is holding a hearing today on a measure that would amend the state constitution to state the governor is subject to the PRA. If the Legislature passes SJR 8214 with a two-thirds majority, it would go to voters in November for ratification or rejection.
A similar proposed constitutional amendment in the House (HJR 4217) would also make clear there is no legislative privilege to secrecy. HJR 4217, however, has yet to be scheduled for a public hearing.
The Legislature should send one of these historical and national precedent-setting joint resolutions to voters. We expect either would easily win voters’ approval.
They are vitally important measures for two reasons.
First, the constitutional amendments would establish the principle that a truly open and transparent government starts at the top. Second, either would erase any justification from lawmakers not to apply the Public Records Act to the Legislature itself.
In a thorough review of the state’s Public Records Act by the non-partisan William D. Ruckelshaus Center at Washington State University it questioned the legislative exemption. Why is the state Legislature excused from disclosure requirements that apply to city councils, school boards, fire commissioners and state agencies?
During a media forum at the beginning of the current session legislative leaders expressed willingness to discuss whether it was time for lawmakers to subject themselves to the state’s open government laws. The time for action is now.
Because the state Legislature has the extraordinary power to create exemptions to public disclosure, which is has done more than 400 times since voters overwhelmingly approved the PRA in 1972, it above all should be open to public scrutiny.