Back in the 1970s it was citizens of Washington state who took the initiative – literally – to force government to do its business in the open. Government officials in those days were generally less than warm to the notion of opening their meetings, handing over their records and telling the world who was bankrolling their political campaigns.
Initiative 276 made it clear that the people of the state felt differently.
How times have changed. Not that elected officials uniformly embrace openness now – far from it – but it’s encouraging when some of them not only enlist in the cause, they become generals in it.
State Auditor Brian Sonntag and Attorney General Rob McKenna have been outspoken in their support of Washington’s open government laws, so it’s no surprise that both were on hand Monday for the first meeting of the Open Government Task Force they teamed up to create.
Better yet, they were there on behalf of steps that would make Washington’s laws more efficient for residents who want to keep an eye on their government.
The problem, as Democrat Sonntag and Republican McKenna noted, is that while the law favors public access to government records and meetings, the bulk of government is inordinately hard to move. When agencies are reluctant to unlock their file drawers and assembly rooms, aggrieved citizens have essentially one recourse: sue.
Going to court means delays long enough and expenses high enough to discourage many if not most citizen watchdogs. So documents stay hidden, meetings resume behind closed doors and the public’s business conceals itself in secrecy.
There has to be a better way, Sonntag and McKenna stressed at Monday’s meeting. Administrative processes would be both faster and less expensive than litigation, they said.
Several states provide models for how that process should look, and the task force should examine them as it begins to compile a list of recommendations for the Legislature to consider during its 2010 session. A number of objectives belong on the list – requiring audio recordings of executive sessions, paring the list of exemptions to the open meeting law, for two examples – but a streamlined process for resolving open government disputes clearly needs attention, too.
Tax dollars shouldn’t be spent on lawyers and bureaucracy to deny citizens access to their own government. Fortunately, two high-profile public officials in Washington agree.