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Fri., March 27, 2009

Our View: Public-records committee still has crucial role

When Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire launched her assault on burgeoning bureaucracy last month, she pointed to a list of 470 state boards and commissions that had been “created over decades of the best of intentions.” In the name of efficiency and economy, she sensibly wanted to weed out those that have become outmoded or expendable.

But at least one of the governor’s candidates for elimination is anything but deadwood.

The Public Records Exemption Accountability Committee – commonly known as the Sunshine Committee – was created only two years ago and has yet to reach its stride. Its purpose is to examine more than three decades of erosion in the state’s commitment to open government and, if appropriate, suggest ways to repair the damage.

Specifically, the Sunshine Committee was assigned to scrutinize more than 300 exemptions that restrict the public’s right to examine public records and attend public meetings.

The foundation of Washington’s commitment to openness is Initiative 276, approved by voters in 1972 with only 10 exemptions to its requirements for the public’s access to government. The proliferation of secrecy since then justifies a serious inquiry into whose interests it has served, those of the public or the politicians.

The Sunshine Committee has a demanding job – getting its arms around what the Legislature has spent some 36 years doing. It got off to a tenuous start and has produced only a modest set of recommendations; important work remains.

The challenges are formidable. Special interest groups and local governments are arrayed against the cause of openness, because it is so much more comfortable to massage public policy without an audience. And, let’s face it, many lawmakers are sympathetic to that view, making legislative implementation of the committee’s recommendations an additional challenge.

Washington has a reputation to think about. This state was a pioneer in the movement to open the doors and windows of government. I-276 reminded public office holders that they are beholden to the people who put them there. And it admonished them that they can’t conceal their activities except under narrow conditions.

Last year the Chicago-based Better Government Association ranked Washington fourth in the nation for government integrity, openness and accountability.

That kind of recognition is reassuring, but it will soon be in jeopardy if the re-examination of open-government exemptions is abandoned.

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