In Our View: Bring on Sunshine

And we're not talking about the weather; we're talking about the public's right to know

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Americans should be greatly troubled to learn that — according to OpenTheGovernment.org — federal agencies spend $185 securing new secrets for every $1 they spend declassifying information for consumption by the public (their bosses). And the feds are spending more than $8.5 billion a year keeping secrets secure from public view.

To begin with, those are our dollars they’re spending. But beyond the fiscal impact is the public’s right to know, clearly defined in the preamble to our state’s Public Records Act: “The people 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.” And that’s the essence of “Sunshine Week,” which began on Sunday and runs through Saturday. The special recognition is led by the American Society of News Editors, and The Columbian and other newspapers often opine on the importance of sunshine on federal, state and local governments.

But this is not about newspapers. It’s about the people; newspapers are simply one of the main conduits of accountability between the people and their governments. So we urge readers to ponder the meaning of Sunshine Week (http://www.sunshineweek.org), and remain vigilant during the year’s 51 other weeks to make sure governments are kept as open as possible.

The week is national, but many open-government victories are local. Here in Southwest Washington, we have a great example of how people can and should shine the sun on their governments’ work. In fact, it’s currently the best example in the nation, good enough to win the national award “Local Heroes” announced by ASNE’s Freedom of Information Committee. That winner is Gloria Howell of Stevenson in Skamania County. A former school board member, Howell already knew the importance of open-government issues, and that motivated her to research the work of the Skamania County auditor’s office.

Howell’s use of public records laws enabled her to prove the county auditor had routinely charged taxpayers for thousands of dollars in unauthorized expenses. The auditor, J. Michael Garvison, was forced to resign and the new county prosecutor is considering whether criminal charges will be filed.

Monday’s announcement was not the first time Howell had been honored. Her examination of the county auditor’s office also won the Key Award last year as announced by the Washington Coalition for Open Government, which nominated Howell for the national award. Here’s a great irony: Howell determined that $39,000 and been spent by the county on unauthorized out-of-state travel. As her prize, Howell receives a not-so-secret, privately funded expenses-paid trip to ASNE’s national convention next month in San Diego. Good for Howell; she earned the trip.

Even those who purport to be well-informed on open-government issues can make mistakes. The Olympian newspaper recently reported a good example. State Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, chairs the House State Government & Tribal Affairs Committee. He and committee members approved House Bill 1899, which would change penalties for public records violations. But as The Olympian reported, the bill was voted out of the committee before a public hearing had been held. Hunt told the newspaper he got it “backwards,” apologized and promised to hold a hearing after the committee vote.

The lesson: There should be no end to the vigilance in protecting the public’s right to know.