In evaluating legislative election candidates for their stand on critical issues – such as school funding, transportation priorities and the environment – one remaining issue is often overlooked: the need to preserve and strengthen Washington’s public access laws.
The cause for an open, accessible government must be at the forefront in assessing candidates. Incumbents and first-time office seekers alike must be asked whether they harbor heartfelt commitments to keep government meetings open and public records accessible to citizens.
The Legislature did take a positive step earlier this year. Lawmakers enacted legislation requested by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson creating the Open Government Training Act. It requires all elected officials and records officers to get training on the state Open Public Meetings Act and Public Records Act within 90 days of taking office.
The act stemmed from a 2012 state auditor’s report issued when we were still in office, citing more than 250 violations of open governments laws. Some were major and some minor; some were deliberate. others inadvertent.
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But at the same time, eight new laws were approved and signed into law in 2014, exempting information from public scrutiny. We have seen with each legislative session over the years a steady erosion of public information available to citizens.
Certainly, more work must be done to preserve Washington’s strong open public meetings and records laws, which was approved by citizens’ initiative in the 1970s.
We note recent examples, such as the port commissions of Tacoma and Seattle meeting behind closed doors – upon advice from port lawyers citing the Open Public Meetings Act – to discuss a report on consolidating operations. Clarity is needed to ensure the public has access to such significant discussions.
In addition, a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling raised a pattern of abuse when elected policymakers use personal cellphones and other devices to conduct the public’s business, and thus attempting to keep that activity from public availability. Fortunately, the court held that information is public.
This underscores the need to make sure our elected representatives stay on top of these issues and act to protect citizens from secrecy and abuse. In our observations, the necessary advocacy for open, accessible government has quieted. Leadership from the Legislature and state elected office has waned.
We no longer have steadfast advocates such as former House Democratic Majority Leader Lynn Kessler of Hoquiam, and one-time GOP state Rep. Toby Nixon of Kirkland. Both left office several years ago.
Certainly, Olympia has its champions. The Washington Coalition for Open Government, Allied Daily Newspapers and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association have been vigilant in protecting the state’s strong tradition of open government.
However, leadership on this issue must also come from within state government. We need elected leaders who value open government and work to protect it.
During this election, citizens, in their self-interest, should assess candidates for their beliefs in open government. Whether it’s at a forum or greeting a doorbelling candidate on their front porch, citizens must elicit ideas and secure commitments on what can be done to preserve public access laws. And good government organizations must be sure to rate candidates based in part on their open government views.
Evaluators need to discern those who support open government because it’s politically wise from those who are true believers.
We must remember the populist nature of Washington, as stated in the preamble of the state’s open government laws that citizens “do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”
Brian Sonntag, currently chief executive officer of the Rescue Mission, served as state auditor from 1993 to 2013. Jerry Pugnetti, who was the auditor’s policy adviser, is a former reporter and editor for The News Tribune.