After a spotlight has been shining for 35 years, the filament shows signs of burning out. It flickers. It dims.
After three and a half decades, Washington’s spotlight on open government – the Public Disclosure Act – is not illuminating as brightly as it’s supposed to. It needs help.
Help may be on the way in the form of the Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee, which will be created if Gov. Chris Gregoire signs a bill just sent to her by the Legislature. The new entity will probably wind up being known by its cheerier nickname, the Sunshine Committee, but the bulkier, formal title is clearer about what is at stake.
In 1972, when state voters were tired of the secret influences that shaped Washington’s politics and policy-making, they used the initiative process to require that public records and public meetings be open. Only that way could citizens keep an effective eye on how government was run. Only that way could self-government work.
Initiative 276’s idealism was tempered with reality. It identified certain circumstances – 10 of them, to be precise – in which exemptions from disclosure were in order. That’s reasonable.
But the lawmakers have been eroding the citizens’ work ever since, and there now are roughly 300 exemptions to the Public Disclosure Act. Three hundred situations in which the law grants the people’s government the ability to keep secrets from the people. That’s not reasonable at all.
On the assumption that the governor will sign the measure with enthusiasm, the 13-member Sunshine Committee will hold its first meeting no later than Sept. 1 to begin examining all the exemptions. It then will send the Legislature, the governor and the attorney general its list of recommendations, exemption by exemption.
It will be a disappointment and a setback for open government if this process doesn’t produce a radical reversal in the troubling trend of the past 35 years. Ultimately the success or failure of this measure will fall to the Legislature, the same body that has been so willing to hand out exemptions.
How it reacts will reveal where the lawmakers’ loyalty lies: with their constituents or with the narrow interests who benefit from keeping the constituents in the dark.
In the 1970s, Washington state was a leader in the open-government movement, but the spotlight is due for replacement.