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Sat., Sept. 21, 2013

Editorial: Monitoring government is a full-time occupation

When Rob McKenna left the attorney general’s office, there was trepidation among open government advocates – and this editorial board – that an era of greater transparency was coming to an end. Bob Ferguson was elected as his replacement, but he was an unknown entity on an issue that involves making powerful people uncomfortable.

Then last month, Tim Ford, the open government ombudsman who worked out of the AG’s office, announced he was taking a position with the state Senate. Was this the sign we’d been dreading?

Maybe not. In fact, the ombudsman might become even stronger, because Ferguson announced on Monday that he’s returning it to a full-time position.

Ford was named to the job in 2007, two years after McKenna created it. But due to budget constraints, Ford’s duties became split in 2011 when he was assigned part-time to do Liquor Control Board work. Still, Ford did an outstanding job advocating for open government and educating government officials on their responsibilities under the Public Records Act.

That act, which was adopted by voters in 1972, has been gutted by more than 300 exemptions. Legislators tried to adopt more last session. They do every session. The selfish desire for work-arounds will probably never end, because many public servants see the act as a nuisance rather than a way in which the public can hold government accountable. It took the people to pass the law, because legislators wouldn’t. And even though politicians talk a good game when it comes to “sunshine being the best disinfectant,” they’re constantly lobbying behind the scenes for exemptions that keep the shades drawn.

For these reasons, the state must have an advocate for open government. So it’s certainly good news that Ford’s replacement will work on that full-time.

Ferguson summarized the need in a press release, stating, “Government is better served when the public is informed and able to engage in our democracy – and government agencies better serve the people when they fully understand and follow open government laws.”

Ford conducted 169 educational sessions for public officials, according to the Tri-City Herald, and that kind of outreach must continue. Understanding the law is key, because it’s become sadly evident over the years that many public officials have not read the Public Records Act. Or, if they have, they don’t embrace its spirit.

The key passage, which cannot be repeated enough, states: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, 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.”

If public officials agree, they will search for ways to get information to the public, rather than hunt for reasons to hide it.

So, we say thank you to Tim Ford for being a tireless educator and stalwart defender of the people’s right to know. And we say to his replacement, who has yet to be selected, good luck.

You have a tough act to follow – and defend.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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