March 12, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Government openness is a blessing, not a burden

 

Blue skies greeted the beginning of Sunshine Week, just in time to celebrate Washington’s sterling score on an important government transparency test. Over in Idaho, it remains somewhat cloudy.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative that commemorates and advocates for open government. To kick it off, the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on improving online access to public information, released a report card on how easy the states make it for citizens to log on, stay informed and hold their representatives accountable.

Washington was one of eight states to get an “A.” Idaho was among 20 states to get a “C.”

The foundation’s Open States team spent a lot of time on legislative websites, and accessed them across categories such as: Completeness, Timeliness, Ease of Use and Permanence.

Washington got extra credit for timeliness, meaning the state updates bill information multiple times a day; readability, for offering data in easy-to-read formats; and permanence, for keeping information online for historical purposes.

Idaho got a point for permanence, but was mediocre in all other categories. To chase the clouds away, legislators will need to push for more timely transparency and more user-friendly websites.

It could be worse. Six states, including California, got Ds, and six others, including Massachusetts, flunked altogether. It’s astonishing that in the Information Age some self-proclaimed progressive states make citizens wait more than 48 hours for bills to be updated and present information in nearly impenetrable formats.

The good news in Washington is tinged, however, by the continued efforts of municipal governments to find excuses to not fulfill public records requests. They’ve lobbied for House Bill 1128, which makes it easier for agencies to turn away requests without availing themselves of options for dealing with nuisances.

The measure allows governments to seek injunctions against requesters while a judge determines whether a request is legitimate. This forces requesters to hire attorneys, which would be enough to shoo away most people without deep pockets, even those with a valid claim to public records.

Officials have options short of injunctions to deal with serial requests without causing their agencies to grind to a halt. The Legislature must keep the burden of proof on government agencies to show why they need relief.

If lawmakers are confused as to why, they need only read the Public Records Act, overwhelmingly adopted by the voters in 1972. The relevant passage in this case is: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

The good news, according to open-government advocate Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center, is that it doesn’t look like House Speaker Frank Chopp intends to move HB 1128 in time for Wednesday’s deadline for bills to be considered by the House as a whole.

That would be another ray of sunshine during a week that celebrates open government.


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