Opinion

The right to know is written in law

A functioning democracy requires a clear window into the workings of government, including open public meetings and access to public records, including contracts, emails, memos and policy documents. The Washington Public Records Act’s eloquent preamble strongly affirms the public’s right to know.

Yet every year a new proposal is launched at the Legislature to close or curtain the windows that offer a view into government’s inner workings.

“I think there is a huge amount of pressure to head in the wrong direction,” says Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. “There are just a few people that stand in the gap.”

Open government issues are not always clean and simple. Police body cameras, for instance, raise issues about citizens’ right to privacy versus the public’s need to hold police accountable for professional behavior.

Our preference, on principle, is for more disclosure and greater accountability. But a compromise between police and open-government advocates last week allows a limited and temporary privacy restriction for two years.

The exemption is for video or audio records that would be deemed highly offensive because of the intrusion into a person’s life and revelation of embarrassing details. Thus, footage of children or nude subjects or films taken inside homes would be shielded from release. At the end of two years, a task force must meet to consider a longer term policy.

As newspapers mark Sunshine Week for the 10th year this week, we offer that example as one of the many and constant struggles to keep all public records open and public officials accountable – and to prevent the right to privacy to be used as an excuse to wall off public access.

But while our state has mostly held the line on transparency, the battle for sunshine is being lost at the federal level. In a column published today on this page, Gary Pruitt, president and chief executive of The Associated Press, lays out an indictment of the federal leviathan – citing numerous, flagrant abuses under the Obama administration.

Our own experiences with the federal government have not been as dire – or offensive – as The AP’s nine-year wait for Treasury records that ended up mostly blacked out, as Pruitt recounts. But we can say the FBI took an unreasonably long 5 ½ months to provide three simple pages of criminal background checks data we had requested last September during the Initiative 594 campaign.

By contrast, state agencies made some good decisions in the past year. For instance, the Military Department chose to release copies of railroads’ reports on the number of large oil trains passing through the state, which the U.S. Department of Transportation required them to disclose to state emergency-management agencies starting last June. Some states have kept the data private; our state rejected the commercial-privacy arguments from rail interests and posted the data online.

Another example was set this month by Gov. Jay Inslee. After the news unfolded about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state, Inslee acknowledged he’d occasionally used a private account to send messages to staffers – and his office released a year’s worth of emails to those who asked for them.

Nixon, who serves on the Kirkland City Council, says he sees more problems at the local-government level. But even there he noted a recent innovation. After Kirkland received a sweeping request for records from an activist, the city engaged in a discussion with the requester that that led to putting more city records online – including any documents released as a result of a records request.

Staff in the governor’s office are talking about whether that’s a good idea for his office, too. “We’re actually having that discussion. We want to do what is right,’’ Inslee spokesman David Postman said recently. “Would there be a chilling effect (on requesters)? When would you do it? Would you do it quarterly?”

That’s a discussion we welcome. We’d like to see agencies find a way to follow Kirkland’s lead.

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