Our Voice: Open government needs full-time legal advocate

It's a good week for open government in Washington.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Monday that he will hire a full-time ombudsman to focus solely on the state's sunshine laws.

"In the interest of promoting open, transparent government, I have decided to invest in a full-time open government ombudsman position that serves the public, media and government agencies on open government issues," Ferguson said in a statement. "Government is better served when the public is informed and able to engage in our democracy -- and government agencies better serve the people when they fully understand and follow open government laws."

He's following in a strong tradition. Former Attorney General Rob McKenna created the post in 2005, and the two attorneys who have held the job were pre-eminent advocates for government transparency in Washington.

The first, Greg Overstreet, left the AG's office to start a private practice concentrating on open government. The second, Tim Ford, went to work for the state Senate in August.

The job has been part time since 2008, when McKenna cut the hours to help balance a shrinking budget.

Ferguson said Monday that budget constraints continue, but the open government job is too important for anything less than a full-time ombudsman.

The fact is, the demand remained full time or more even after the hours were cut.

The ombudsman answers more than 500 inquiries a year from citizens, news reporters and others who want to know if they have a right to attend a meeting or obtain a document, and from elected officials and government employees trying to comply with state sunshine laws. That's about two requests for legal opinions every working day.

In addition, the ombudsmen coordinates the attorney general's legislative efforts on open meetings and records, drafting legislation and lobbying lawmakers to get it passed. He speaks to various groups throughout the year about Washington's open-government laws.

But restoring the position to full-time status is about more than just realistically assessing the workload. It also acknowledges that transparency is fundamental to self-government.

The Washington Public Records Act eloquently describes the rationale for keeping the public's business public:

"The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, 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. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created."

Ferguson has done the right thing by making the ombudsman's job full time again. Now he needs to hire a fierce advocate to fill the position.

Ford and Overstreet established the standard. Open government proponents will be closely watching to see if the next ombudsman can fill their shoes.