Washington has a reputation for being one of the more open states when it comes to public disclosure — but that’s not the case when it comes to the financial statements of elected officials and candidates.
In fact, Washington lags far behind most other states in making that information readily available to the public in searchable online databases. Now the state Public Disclosure Commission is considering making changes to address that lapse.
Disclosure reports — or F1 statements — provide general information on income, property holdings, investments and government contracts. They’re required of about 6,000 people statewide: elected state and local officials, state employees such as public university presidents and trustees, top staffers to the Legislature and governor, and candidates for office.
The forms are available from the PDC, but only if specifically requested by email or in person at the PDC’s Olympia office. Citizens can’t simply go online and get access, which they can do in at least 29 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
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So why is this kind of information relevant? Consider these hypothetical scenarios that might suggest possible conflicts of interest or, worse, hypocrisy:
• A city council member’s votes are favorable to a particular business trying to locate in town. His F1 shows that he’s a major stockholder in that company.
• A lawmaker votes to rezone an area. It turns out she owns property in that area that now can fetch a higher sale price.
• A legislator regularly complains about government benefits for low-income people. A look at his F1 shows that he accepts thousands of dollars annually in federal farm subsidies.
There’s some concern on the commission that putting the financial statements online would discourage people from running for office or entering public service. Somehow a majority of other states are able to function even though they make that information easily accessible. Would Washington really be any different?
One concern — about publishing home addresses of officials online — does have merit. For the personal safety of them and their families, withholding that information on request makes sense. Home addresses could still be obtained through a public records request. That’s how candidate filing information is handled by the Pierce County auditor’s office, which gives filers the online option of using an alternative address such as a campaign office or post office box.
Critics also argue that the state’s disclosure system needs a more detailed breakdown of assets. But at the very least, getting F1 statements online is a no-brainer.