Keep sun shining on government

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Peggy Watt is chairwoman of the Department of Journalism at Western Washington University and a board member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government (http://www.washingtoncog.org)

We Washingtonians don't tend to think of our home as a sunshine state. But in fact the residents of this state enjoy a particular sunshine all year, when we push open the doors to a meeting of politicians, or shine a light on a government record written by a bureaucrat.

State law recognizes exemptions to that sunshine for privacy and other reasons. But the assumed forecast is supposed to be sunshine, under state law and long-standing practice. And it is the job of Washingtonians to keep an eye on our weather. As Thomas Jefferson observed, "If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed."

For more than 200 years, Americans have guarded our freedom by keeping the work of our elected and appointed officials in the sunlight.

Storms occasionally occur, of course. For example, Gov. Christine Gregoire will soon defend before the state Supreme Court her claim of "executive privilege" to deny requests for public records about criminal pardons, medical marijuana, and the Alaskan Way viaduct, among other topics.

Roots in Watergate era

Both sides of that argument have roots in the Watergate era; then-President Richard Nixon claimed executive privilege to withhold records from the American public, while about the same time Washington state voters passed Initiative 276, which led to the Public Disclosure Act.

Even when that dispute goes to court, Washington's sunshine laws will guide the discussion: "Justice in all cases shall be administered openly, and without unnecessary delay," under the Washington state Constitution. Our courtrooms should be open.

But disclosure laws are more difficult to exercise if you don't know how or when to flip the light switch.

A few days from now, Vancouver-area residents can take part in a free public forum about open government. The two-hour program begins at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 20, in the Columbia room of the Vancouver Community Library, 901 C St.

Scheduled panelists are:

Martha Martin, Ph.D., Concerned Citizens in Action of Camas/Washougal and a member of the East County Fire and Rescue Board of Commissioners.

Toby Nixon, Kirkland city councilmember and president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

Tim Ford, assistant attorney general.

Jerry Handfield, state archivist.

Brad Andersen, attorney with Schwabe, Williamson and Wyatt, as moderator.

The forum is open to the public, and audience participation is encouraged.

Co-sponsors are the League of Women Voters of Clark County, Concerned Citizens in Action of Camas/Washougal, the law firm of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, and the Washington Coalition for Open Government, a nonpartisan organization of advocates of sunshine in Washington.

Our efforts to remain informed can be, well, enlightening. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis noted, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." It's summer; the sun is shining in Washington.