In 1992, when the late Joel Pritchard was Washington’s lieutenant governor, he was campaigning on behalf of a ballot measure intended to restrict political campaign donations.
Pritchard, a moderate Seattle Republican, was a former congressman and state legislator who enjoyed bipartisan respect as a man of principle. He was among those who thought excessive spending was robbing the general public of ultimate control over the elections process.
So Pritchard was backing a measure he thought would restore some integrity to the system. Yet he candidly admitted that in time, those with something to gain would find a way around the limits, and the reformers would have to start over.
What Pritchard’s experience had taught him is that if you want to protect the people’s institutions from being hijacked by powerful interests, you’d better be ready to fight a series of rear-guard actions.
As it is with election influence, so it is with open meetings and open records. And sadly, it appears that the Sunshine Committee, created by the Legislature to review a mushrooming body of secrecy in state and local government, may not have the stomach to keep up the battle.
The sense of those who were at the committee’s meeting last week in Olympia is that it will accept the circumstances that have been created by a couple of dubious state Supreme Court decisions. Those decisions have given government broad latitude to conceal its activities by claiming they are covered as attorney-client dealings.
When Washington voters approved the Public Disclosure Act as an initiative in 1972, they did so because they couldn’t count on elected and appointed public officials to let them see what was going on in government. Records were being withheld and meetings were closed. In a representative form of self-government, they had no effective way to hold public officials accountable.
The initiative acknowledged that under certain conditions – an agency strategizing with its attorney about an upcoming trial, for example – secrecy could be justified. But from a handful of such conditions, state law has ballooned in the past 30 years to allow more than 300 exemptions to open meeting and open records requirements.
And, to complicate matters, the court has now invited local governments to claim that information may be kept secret from the public if an action might become the subject of litigation.
The Washington Coalition for Open Government, a private nonprofit organization that watchdogs such matters, has tracked a worrisome trend. Before 2004, when the state Supreme Court opened the door to this pretense in its Hangartner v. Seattle ruling, attorney-client concerns were seldom used to support the withholding of public records. Since 2004, says coalition president and former state legislator Toby Nixon, they have been cited hundreds of times.
Just as Joel Pritchard predicted that well-heeled campaign financiers would eventually find a way to circumvent efforts to protect the public voice, so government entities have acquired tactics for undermining open-government laws.
The Sunshine Committee has a decision to make: Will it protect the people from the government or the government from the people?
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