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Outside View: Open government worth the cost

The following editorial from the Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.) does not necessarily reflect the view of The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board.

One of the impacts of the digital age is an increase in the demand for open government. As information is more easily shared with the public through online portals or the exchange of emails, there is little reason for citizens to be left in the dark or for public officials to avoid scrutiny.

Yet, providing increased transparency is not always as simple as it sounds – as a pair of recent media reports demonstrate.

In one, a recent survey from the Washington State Auditor’s Office highlights the burden that can be placed upon governments by requests for public documents. The report, which was requested by the Legislature, looks at how much time, effort and expense is involved with responding to legal requests for records. In 2015, state and local governments in Washington responded to 285,000 requests for public records; 541 of the 923 agencies involved included price tags for those responses, and those costs added up to about $60 million for tracking down and delivering the information requested by the public.

The report found that there has been a 36 percent increase in the number of requests from 2011 to 2015, and a 70 percent increase in the cost of fulfilling those requests. And while those costs continue to mount, they must be viewed as the price of living in a democracy. It is a small price to pay. Having access to public officials’ emails or the minutes of public meetings is essential to providing an open government that is beholden to taxpayers. Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Council for Open Government, told the Seattle Times, “The records are owned by the people, and we have a right to see them.”

Having that access is guaranteed by Washington’s Public Records Act. And while the Legislature could reasonably consider methods for controlling the costs – such as nominal fees for records searches or streamlined documentation to simplify such searches – lawmakers should be wary of steps that would diminish the power of the Public Records Act.

Meanwhile, an article by reporter Lauren Dake of the Columbian also points out some of the difficulty of adhering to open government. Many lawmakers, it seems, are unaware of requirements for filing disclosure paperwork when visiting a foreign country under the auspices of a trade mission. When a trip is paid for by an outside government or organization, state law dictates that they reveal the details to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission.

The importance of such disclosure was explained by Jordan Libowitz of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C.: “When lawmakers are going on official trips, doing state business, they are representing the state, so citizens of the state deserve to know what’s going on.”

The bottom line is that integrity in government is inextricably tied to openness, and that openness is essential to ensuring the confidence of the public. Access to public records and full disclosure from lawmakers are two ways in which state officials can bolster that confidence.


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