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Opinion

SATURDAY, DEC. 12, 2009

Government should keep its dark corners lit

Sometimes citizens have to step in, and the formal agents of government have to step aside. That’s the spirit behind the Washington Constitution’s liberal provision for initiatives and referendums.

Earlier this year, for example, when elected state lawmakers finally afforded gay and lesbian couples rights that are roughly on a par with those that traditional married couples enjoy, disapproving citizens collected enough signatures to force the issue onto the ballot as Referendum 71. Ultimately, the voters passed the measure and validated the legislators’ work, but first a body of citizens got a second chance to put up a fight.

A better example of public activism happened more than 30 years ago, when citizens grew tired of government officials’ habit of doing much of their work out of public view. Thanks to those activists, Washington became a leader in the movement to guarantee public access to meetings, records and campaign finance details. It was a great victory for government accountability, but if we’d relied on government officials to shine a light on themselves, it would have been a long wait.

Now, sweet irony, there’s a serious threat that initiative and referendum organizers will be allowed to avoid the very openness that Initiative 276 forced upon unwilling government entities. On Jan. 8, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide whether to take up a case claiming that initiative and referendum petitions should not be public documents.

The issue arose during the Referendum 71 battle, when petition signers feared they could be exposed to threats or harassment if their names were made public.

State law says the completed petitions are public documents. A federal judge said they should be kept secret to protect signers’ anonymous political speech. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, saying there’s nothing anonymous about names that are collected in public, openly viewed by uncounted other signers and, ultimately, submitted to a canvassing process that involves observation by both proponents and opponents of the measure.

While we wait for the Supreme Court to decide if it will impair Washington residents’ ability to monitor this state’s lawmaking, one Seattle legislator has already prefiled a bill for next month’s legislative session in Olympia. Rep. Reuven Carlyle’s bill would affirm that the names, addresses and signatures of petition signers are public information.

That could be a ringing endorsement of Washington state’s commitment to openness and accountability, but it may not accomplish much else if the Supreme Court thinks it violates a First Amendment protection, thus raising a federal constitutional issue.

As it happens, one of those actively pushing for secrecy is initiative guru Tim Eyman, annual purveyor of Washington ballot initiatives. Eyman, of all people, should appreciate transparency in the lawmaking process.

Somehow we think Eyman has other motivations. In the interest of clean, open government in Washington, it’s more promising to count on the Supreme Court to see the flaws in his arguments.



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