Washingtonians who value open, accessible government have watched with dismay for several years as the state’s commitment to openness has been eroded, exemption by exemption.
At the urging of Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna and Democratic Auditor Brian Sonntag, a bipartisan push produced a special committee to examine the growing list of exemptions and recommend places where the trend could be reversed. Unfortunately, the committee has faced an uphill grind, and in the meantime, every legislative session brings a new round of proposed exemptions.
An example of this worrisome pattern is tucked in legislation now under consideration in Olympia.
The four bills involved are plausible and timely so far as their intent is concerned. They are meant to update and clarify the state Department of Financial Institutions’ role in regulating banks, credit unions and holding companies. Backers say the state now relies on laws that in some cases date back to the 1930s and have been overtaken by time.
Nothing underscores the need for effective oversight in the modern banking world better than a devastating recession and the careless policies that contributed to it. The public, in whose name agencies such as the Department of Financial Institutions operate, deserves better than it got.
Curiously, though, the measures now before the Legislature would prevent the public from knowing in a timely fashion when state regulators spot troublesome practices that call for disciplinary steps. They specifically exempt regulatory enforcement actions from the state Public Records Act.
Entities such as banks and credit unions fall under the regulatory authority of the state to protect the public interest. It makes no sense to create that role in the name of the public, then keep the public from knowing when it’s exercised.
Washington voters said in 1972 that they want public records to be open and they want government agencies to meet in public. The Legislature has been too willing since then to accommodate government agencies that want to lock the public out. That practice needs to be reversed, not expanded.