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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Opinion >  Editorial

Open meetings law toothless

Because government is run in full view of the public – or should be – it can seem inefficient and sometimes dysfunctional. So why not operate government like a business?

The temptation must be great. A private business may struggle to hire a new chief executive and end up lowering its sights, but you’ll never know. It’s none of your business.

Government could do this, if it weren’t for the public’s right to know what its servants are up to. We wouldn’t put up with it. Or would we?

Washington state’s Open Public Meetings Act requires the public’s business to be conducted in public, with some narrow exemptions. It was adopted 45 years ago this month.

But as the Washington Coalition of Open Government notes in a news release, “There has never been a published court opinion assessing a fine against a governing body member for conducting the public’s business in secret. This is because, in order to enforce the penalty provision, a citizen plaintiff must prove that the board or council member knowingly violated the open meetings requirement.”

If you get pulled over for a traffic violation, you can’t escape a ticket by professing ignorance for whatever rule you just broke. However, a public official can do that and escape an open-meetings-law penalty.

Remember Sgt. Schultz on “Hogan’s Heroes”? His catch phrase was “I know nothing.” Well, it pays to remain ignorant of the OPMA or pretend to be. It’s practically impossible to prove that someone violated the law on purpose.

This year, the Legislature increased the fine for violating the law, but $500 times 0 is the same as $100 times 0.

But do you really care? Public officials calculate that you don’t. They know the intent of public meetings and public records laws, but they might circumnavigate them if it makes their lives easier.

The public is partly to blame because we send mixed messages on our expectations. For instance, the University of Washington and Washington State University recently hired new presidents without divulging the names of the other finalists. It wasn’t the first time, and there’s been little public outcry.

Imagine the city of Spokane doing that in hiring a police chief. Instead, the city brought in the finalists as part of a public process in searches for police chief and ombudsman. Spokane Public Schools announced finalists before selecting Dr. Shelley Redinger.

Meanwhile, WSU used a TSA-secured area of Sea-Tac to conduct interviews to keep finalists’ names secret.

If we need to carve out an exception for university presidents because that’s the only way to get top candidates, then let’s have that debate and do so.

But that shouldn’t preclude legislators from tightening the OPMA’s enforcement language to make the prospect of penalties seem real. As is, they are “knowingly” winking and looking the other way.

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