OLYMPIA – Call them Washington’s newest sheriffs of “sunshine.”
After nearly a decade of public-interest law focused mainly in the Spokane area, the nonprofit Center for Justice has launched a statewide campaign targeting illegal secrecy in government.
The group’s first volley of lawsuits – against five local governments accused of open-meetings law violations – has generated three settlements, along with hurrahs from open-government activists across the political spectrum.
Director Breean Beggs promises there will be more: “What we’re really playing for is to change the culture of open records and meetings.”
Some local government leaders, though, say the idea hits a sour note.
Small counties, for instance, have found a frustrating lack of legal guidance about the state’s rules for public meetings, said Julie Murray, a policy director for the Washington State Association of Counties.
Getting hit with a lawsuit doesn’t necessarily ensure that most officials are any better educated about their responsibilities, she said.
“It’s really just detracting from the issue of trying not to have these violations in the first place,” Murray said. “People just try to deal with them, but it doesn’t give the rest of the local government community any better idea of how to comply.”
Washington’s government access laws were passed in the early 1970s. In essence, they say government meetings and documents must be open to taxpayer oversight, with some limitations.
Activists and news media, however, have complained that three decades of legal revisions and the lack of a formal enforcement body have hobbled open government policy.
The state has taken some steps to soothe those worries in recent years. The Legislature’s Sunshine Committee, for instance, is rethinking a long list of exceptions to the open-records law. Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, has created an open-government advocate on his staff, while Democratic state Auditor Brian Sonntag has examined agencies’ performance under the transparency laws.
Outside groups like the Center for Justice still see room for a more aggressive approach. Enter the Spokane-based organization’s new Open Government Audit Project, basically a lawsuit-generating machine that targets government agencies suspected of violating the open meetings or records laws.
Public meeting violations have been the first targets, partly because state law allows anyone to sue a government entity over such missteps, even if the plaintiff doesn’t live in the agency’s backyard.
Beggs says the open-government project’s aims are pure: The center just wants to make sure the government is following the law, and remaining accountable to its constituents.
As a nonprofit, “We’re basically owned by the public,” Beggs said. “We don’t have a bunch of trial lawyers getting rich over it. We have the public interest as the client.”
He points out that in the center’s first three settlements – with the Port of Longview, the city of Ridgefield, and the Yelm Fire District – officials made charitable donations rather than paying fines. The nonprofit, partnering with open-government specialists at Allied Law Group, did recover legal costs.
The center, however, has at least one vigorous fight on its hands: the Arlington School District, in Snohomish County.
The Center for Justice alleges in its lawsuit that the school board there routinely violates the Open Public Meetings Act by holding unannounced gatherings outside of public meetings.
The school board says there is plenty of readily available proof to the contrary. Part of what rankles the school district, attorney David Hokit said, is that officials knew nothing about the Center for Justice’s worries over open-meetings practices before hearing from a television news crew that the district had been sued.
Instead of investigating its suspicions by checking available public documents or inquiring with the board, the Center for Justice moved quickly to drag officials into court.
“If it had been ‘Ask questions and assess whether there’s a lawsuit,’ that’s one thing,” Hokit said. “But when the information is there to be found and it’s not pursued prior to the suit, then, you bet – it just ends up costing everybody.”
“I don’t think anyone had heard of the Center for Justice until they got served with the lawsuit,” he added.
Officials also say that, in the main, governments in Washington behave pretty well when it comes to openness. Sonntag’s recent audit of public records responses, for instance, found an 88 percent compliance rate among the 30 government entities examined.
Beggs concedes that government officials regularly comply with the laws. But he argues that taxpayers shouldn’t abide much less than perfection when it comes to government transparency.
“I think there is an implicit assumption by a lot of people that the government only has to follow the law the majority of the time,” Beggs said. “If that’s all you expected of private citizens, there would be outrage.”