Government bodies ought to be compelled to record their executive sessions, so that violations of the Open Public Meetings Act can be flagged. The Washington Attorney General’s Office and the state Auditor’s Office have pushed for this change, but city councils, county commissions and other public entities have resisted, saying they fear public-records requests of the recordings.
There are legitimate reasons, such as litigation strategy, personnel matters and pending real estate deals, for officials to gather behind closed doors. So, as a compromise, Senate Bill 6109 was introduced at the behest of the attorney general and the auditor to grant an exemption to the Public Records Act for executive session recordings. The bill easily passed the Senate, and a companion measure is set for a hearing in the House.
We echo the thoughts of Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center, who testified in favor of bill. We don’t like exemptions to public records law – there are far too many as it is – but if this is what it takes to allay the fears of nervous officeholders, then so be it.
However, if they still don’t record their executive sessions, then they have some explaining to do, because this bill eliminates their chief concern.
We think officials may find benefits in the recordings because they can be referenced to clarify matters or resolve internal disputes about what was said and agreed upon. If someone makes a legitimate charge that public matters were discussed, a judge would review the recordings. Anything that should not have been discussed in private would become public record.
The concern that illegal private conversations are taking place is legitimate. The state auditor has found hundreds of violations of the open-meetings law over the years. It’s not a stretch to think some closed-door meetings are ranging too far afield.
We believe that officials can have appropriate and frank discussions in private while being recorded. If they’re worried about impolitic comments reaching the public, they should act more professionally. If they’re worried about inadvertently violating the law, they should study up on it or consult their attorneys.
As is, there is no way to know if they’ve crossed the line. “Trust us” isn’t compelling when there have already been so many violations.
If this bill becomes law, public officials should voluntarily record their executive sessions. If they don’t, it will prompt reasonable suspicion. If enough of them still forgo recordings, then the attorney general and auditor should return to Olympia with a request that they become mandatory.
No more excuses.