Storm brews over open-government laws and secrecy
The future of open government in Washington is cloudy. The passion and idealism that drove the proponents of the Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act are hard to find except among a small core of open-government activists and professional journalists. Open-government proponents occasionally debate whether it's time for a new open-government initiative. There are plenty of reasons to think so.
Special to The Times
Sunshine Week ConferenceKEY PLAYERS IN THE PASSAGE OF INITIATIVE 276 will be honored during an Open Government Sunshine Week Conference on Saturday in Seattle. The conference will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Women's University Club, 1105 6th Ave. For more information, visit www.washingtoncog.org
RICHARD Nixon was re-elected in a landslide. Dan Evans won a third term as Washington's governor. State voters said no to private liquor sales and dog racing.
In that contentious general election of 1972, voters also approved Initiative 276, one of the twin bulwarks of open government in Washington. It hardly rated a headline in the next day's newspapers.
Of course, the glut of 24 tax proposals, initiatives and referendums on the state ballot helped relegate the news on I-276 to inside-page summaries.
And that bit about making public records public — the law is now called the Public Records Act — was almost an afterthought in the initiative itself. The measure focused mostly on disclosing political campaign contributions.
Today it seems astonishing that a law so crucial to keeping citizens informed about government doings was only inside-page news back then. But the voters' 72 percent approval of Initiative 276 still resounds as a far-reaching victory for open government. We should be grateful.
Forty years later, though, the future of open government in Washington is cloudy. The passion and idealism that drove the proponents of Initiative 276 are hard to find except among a small core of open-government activists and professional journalists.
Both the Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act (enacted by the Legislature in 1971) have been seriously eroded by unfavorable court decisions, proliferating legislative exemptions, feeble enforcement, failure to keep up with technology, ineffective penalties for violations, and, sorry to say, public and legislative apathy.
This is supposed to be the Information Age, but citizens are more enthralled — and sometimes properly worried — about Twitter and Facebook than whether state and local governments are hiding records that should be made public.
Open-government proponents occasionally debate whether it's time for a new open-government initiative. There are plenty of reasons to think so.
For starters, Initiative 276 was drafted when official documents were created on manual typewriters. Its authors could not have foreseen the advent of the Internet, email, cellphones, pocket voice recorders, tiny webcams and other technological wonders. The Open Meetings Act needs to be systematically updated for the digital age.
One easy change would be to require closed meetings to be electronically recorded so that a judge could review them when reporters or citizens suspect public business was illegally discussed in secret. The Legislature isn't interested.
Lawmakers also need to repair the damage done by misguided state Supreme Court decisions that have made it too easy for officials to hide behind attorney-client privilege to keep vital information from the public.
A few legislative champions of open government have tried to clean up the mess, to no avail. Lobbyists for government have louder voices. Gov. Chris Gregoire and Attorney Gen. Rob McKenna haven't lifted a finger.
One initially positive development — the Legislature's 2007 creation of a Sunshine Committee to winnow through the ballooning list of exemptions from public disclosures — is on life support, with relatively little to show for its efforts.
Lawmakers may even kill the committee this session. Blame apathy and bureaucratic resistance. Again, government insiders have the loudest voices.
It's all open-government advocates can do just to play defense. For example, state and local government bureaucrats complain endlessly about the trouble and expense to taxpayers caused by "abusive requesters." Officials want to jack up charges for copying records and make it easier in other ways to obstruct access to public records. They complain that agencies are sometimes penalized for unintentional mistakes.
The truth is that in most instances, large fines or settlements for disclosure violations are the result of simple bureaucratic intransigence or inexcusable disregard for the law.
Seattle resident Eric Rachner has won a total of $70,000 in settlements so far from the Seattle Police Department for falsely denying it had dashboard-camera recordings of his 2008 arrest in a minor incident. It has since come to light that Seattle police have lost or mishandled tens of thousands of dash-cam recordings.
For the police department, that's just the cost of doing business, not an impetus to clean up its act. Officials would rather complain about citizen "pests" using their legal rights than properly train their employees to comply with the disclosure law in ways that would hold costs down and avert lawsuits.
What's wrong here? Why does the tide seem to be ebbing as far as open government in this state is concerned?
University of Arizona journalism professor David Cuillier, a veteran of several Washington newspapers, is an expert on open-government laws. He believes Washington is still one of the most transparent states overall.
But the reality, he says, is that "the mass public is not thinking like it did in the 1960s. People are accepting secrecy, and that is reflected in public policy.
"We are becoming sheep, and it will be our downfall, our decline into third-worlddom. It is not what our founding fathers intended. That is scary to me."
As it should be to us all.David Seago is a board member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. He retired in 2008 as editorial page editor of The News Tribune in Tacoma.