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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: A Bogey On Transparency

Pierce County\u2019s coup of landing U.S. Open marred by public relations miscue

The Columbian
Published: June 9, 2015, 12:00am

When it comes to questions of government transparency and ethics, the answers typically are exceedingly simple. Because of that, a flap surrounding Pierce County and state lawmakers and the upcoming U.S. Open golf championship near Tacoma amounts to a head-scratching bogey for all concerned.

With one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events set for next week at Chambers Bay Golf Course in University Place, officials have pulled the public relations equivalent of driving a golf cart across the green. Pierce County representatives invited 45 legislators to attend one day of the tournament free of charge as their guests.

The tickets have a face value of $110, which exceeds the typical limit of a $50 gift that lawmakers are allowed to accept. But the state Legislative Ethics Board ruled that the gift is permissible because lawmakers are scheduled to attend a three-hour presentation from the county highlighting the benefits of bringing a world-class event to Pierce County. “We promise it’s going to be an actual presentation,” Pierce County spokesman Hunter George said. “We’d like (lawmakers) to see this is what your support did.” That support includes about $750,000 the Legislature has pledged to help cover the county’s security costs for hosting the event.

That is taxpayer money we’re discussing, and that is where the issue gets about as murky as an algae-covered water hazard. County officials have declined to allow the media to attend the presentation, with George saying, “This is like a Super Bowl. You don’t have all-access.” Journalists, who are the conduit between lawmakers and taxpayers, should be represented at the county’s presentation in order to report just how hard those lawmakers are “working.” County officials have said they will release the Power Point presentation to the public after the fact, but that does little to assuage the doubts. As Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, told The (Tacoma) News Tribune, access to the presentation won’t tell the public “whether they’re having a cocktail party and there’s this slideshow being ignored off in the corner.”

While the county’s declaration that it will release the Power Point might be seen as an attempt to mitigate the minor controversy, officials instead have created a buried lie for themselves. If the presentation will be made available to the public, why not allow journalists or the public to attend in the first place? The perception that there will be more glad-handing than work is more important than the reality.

Again, such conundrums should be easily avoidable. As of Friday, 14 lawmakers had signed up to accept the offer, but they would be wise to pay for their tickets rather than take part in the questionable largesse. Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, demonstrated leadership in declining the gift and saying, “I’m happy for Pierce County. But I think it’s a larger gift than I should accept.”

Meanwhile, all Washingtonians should be happy for Pierce County. Chambers Bay, which is a publicly accessible course owned by the county, opened in 2007, and the presence of the U.S. Open will represent an extraordinary achievement for the region. The tournament, which moves from year to year rather than being played at a permanent location, has never been held in the Northwest.

All of that represents a coup for Pierce County officials. But in their efforts to revel in their good fortune — and to build support for hosting the event again in the future — they have managed to slice their tee shot into the deep rough.