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Opinion

Sun., Feb. 28, 2016

Bob Ferguson: Toughen sanctions for open meeting violations

How much do you pay for phone, cable or Internet service each month? Has that gone up over the years?

You might be surprised that your public representatives, when they knowingly violate our open meeting laws, face a lower fine than the cost of many cable packages — a mere $100.

That’s not right.

And unlike your cable package, that amount hasn’t changed since Richard Nixon was president.

That’s not fair.

Consequently, I’m asking the Washington Legislature to raise the penalty for knowingly violating these laws to $500 for a first-time offense and $1,000 for a repeat offense.

More than 40 years ago, we adopted the Open Public Meetings Act. The law applies to public agency governing bodies like your city council and school board. The law’s intent is clear: “The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

In other words, you have a right to see your government at work. Your representatives on these boards cannot meet behind closed doors and make decisions. That’s against the law.

Right now, a court can only assess a $100 civil penalty as personal liability against a governing body member who knowingly attends a meeting in violation of the OPMA. That’s it. You pay more for a speeding ticket.

Remarkably, that $100 is the same amount as when the act was adopted in 1971, and it is far below penalties for similar violations in many other states. There is also no increased penalty in Washington for repeat violations.

That doesn’t pass the straight-face test. To be an effective deterrent, a penalty must have some meaning.

Thanks to the bipartisan leadership of Sen. Pam Roach, R-Sumner, and Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, we have the chance to make a much-needed change. Our proposal raises the penalty to $500, which is roughly adjusting the amount for inflation since 1971.

Moreover, our proposal increases the penalty for repeat offenders.

Taken together, this proposal will restore the penalty’s original intent to deter violations of our transparency in government laws.

The timing is perfect. Sunshine Week is March 13-19, a national recognition of transparency in government.

And, by the way, if you have trouble with that phone or cable bill, my Consumer Protection Division is standing by.

Bob Ferguson is the attorney general for Washington state.