In Our View: The Public’s Rights

Open-government principles must prevailduring the 2012 legislative session

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Before they get deeply engrossed in deliberations over a sales tax increase, legalizing marijuana or approving gay marriage, Washington’s legislators should do themselves and their constituents a favor by reviewing this powerful passage from the Revised Code of Washington:

“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.”

It’s hard to imagine a job description more clear and concise than that. And yet, hardly a year goes by without some of our state lawmakers forgetting or intentionally ignoring the message enshrined in the RCW. Words like “public servants” and “insist on remaining informed” seem to evaporate as the mist of partisan politics seeps into the chambers.

Fortunately in our state, the mission of open government is ferociously protected by the people, with help from several nonpartisan advocacy groups. These groups maintain a year-round vigilance to keep public records and meetings open and available to the people. Here are a couple of our favorites:

Washington Coalition for Open Government — Leading the list of WCOG’s legislative priorities for 2012 is the effort to require open-government training for every elected or appointed official and every government worker. That would include members of councils, boards and commissions who are subject to the Open Public Meetings Act.

This requirement would not be as complicated or as costly as it might seem on first review. WCOG points out that low- or no-cost training can be developed in conjunction with the state attorney general’s office, using concise, Web-based instruction. And even if there is a minimal cost, the training “will avoid far greater cost for penalties, attorney fees and court costs” by reducing violations. Public officials would be reminded how to preserve and disclose public records.

Another proposal is to create a Voluntary Mediation Program in which disputes over public records and public meetings could be resolved. This, too, could prevent and reduce high legal fees and court costs. If mediation fails, the citizens’ right to pursue cases in court would be preserved.

Also, WCOG correctly argues for preservation of the Sunshine Committee, which identifies and reviews exemptions to the Public Records Act. Those exemptions should be rare and subject to repeated scrutiny through the years. The Legislature has not done a good job of following the Sunshine Committee’s recommendations. That shortcoming, though, is the lawmakers’ fault and not the committee’s.

Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington — This group’s interest in the 2012 legislative session is based on several warnings about possible erosion of freedoms that were gained through the years only by hard work and intense advocacy. In a recent memo, Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington explained that many cities, counties and ports want “to eliminate or greatly reduce penalties, to eliminate awarding of attorney’s fees in cases they have lost, to limit requests in size, scope and frequency, and to be able to charge for requests” for access to public records. Many counties are arguing that they should be allowed “to eliminate public notices as being too expensive in the current economy.”

How absurd. The public’s right to know is not subject to the whims of the economy. It exists through boom times and busts.