Members of the Washington Legislature can’t always pick their committee assignments, but there’s no reason they can’t join the Open Government Caucus, a bipartisan forum to be launched soon.
Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-North Seattle, and Rep. Brad Hawkins, R-East Wenatchee, are spearheading this effort to discuss how to make government at all levels more open and accessible, and they’ve sent invitations to all legislators. Open government advocates and interested parties can attend these twice-a-month sessions to listen and participate in discussions on such topics as public records requests, open meetings laws and using the Internet to push more information out to the public in an easy-to-use way.
The editorial board hears many political candidates and officeholders extol the virtues of a transparent government and affirm their commitment to that principle, but we’re also aware that local and state governments routinely lobby the Legislature for relief from the Public Records Act, which was adopted overwhelmingly by the voters. Since its passage, in 1972, the Legislature has adopted more than 300 exemptions. And more exceptions were sought in the last legislative session.
So it will be interesting to see who shows up to these forums and what they have to say. We hope all officeholders and agency leaders tune in to the discussions because many of them have a lot to learn.
Along those lines, Pollet has persuaded the attorney general’s office to request legislation that would require state and local officials – elected and appointed – to complete online training on the Public Records Act, Open Meetings Act and records management laws, and renew that training every four years to keep pace with changes. The attorney general’s office would provide training and technical assistance.
This is a long overdue requirement that would remove the “I didn’t know” excuse when the laws are ignored. In 2012, the state auditor’s office found more than 250 violations by state and local level. If government officials treated meetings and records as important tools for an informed citizenry, many battles could be avoided. Unfortunately, the attitude of some public officials is that transparency is a nuisance.
A fine example of the right attitude comes from last session’s bill co-sponsored by Rep. Hawkins and Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane. Though they were freshmen legislators, they were able to persuade their colleagues that it wasn’t good enough to put information online if it was difficult to navigate. As a result, the public will soon be able to access an online map of capital and transportation budgets to easily discern spending by county and legislative districts. From there, it will be logical to extend this user-friendly technology to operating budgets and other government data.
For open government advocates, 2014 has the potential for exciting developments. But it’s up to lawmakers to ensure that this momentum isn’t stymied by the lazy excuse that transparency is too hard and not worth it.