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Secrecy doesn’t further government reform

Post by Kim Bradford on Feb. 1, 2010 at 6:47 pm with No Comments »
February 1, 2010 5:50 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

A common thread among several attempts to reform government and public schools this year is a sense that such efforts will succeed only if allowed to operate in the dark.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Lawmakers who think they can improve the public’s business by short-circuiting public disclosure will inevitably be disappointed.

Secrecy is largely antithetical to well-run public institutions – not because those institutions are run by people with nefarious aims but because working in an echo chamber never produces the best results.

Yet some lawmakers seem to view open government as a nicety more than a necessity. They extend exceptions to the state’s accountability laws as concessions designed to make change easier – on public officials.

The latest example: Legislation introduced last week by Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup. Kastama wants the state to appoint a bipartisan group of respected state leaders – former Sen. Slade Gorton and former Gov. Booth Gardner are among the people he names – to help decide how to reshape state government.

The process, which would be similar to the federal Base Closure and Realignment Commission, is an effort to depoliticize decisions about shrinking state government’s footprint. It sounds like a promising idea – except the part about how the commission would meet almost entirely in secret.

Then there’s the bill by Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, that aims to reward high-performing schools with greater autonomy and flexibility. Those schools would be exempted from many state requirements, including laws governing records retention, ethical standards, political campaign spending and whistleblower protection.

The proposal defies logic , as if accountability and educational success aren’t related.

Also working at apparent cross purposes is a pair of bills requested by the state Department of Financial Institutions and sponsored by Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington.

The legislation gives DFI additional enforcement powers to go after troubled banks – powers the agency says it needs to head off future financial crises – but also would bar the public from accessing much of the information.

Government regulations are important safeguards, but they are no substitute for an alert public. A public agency doesn’t become more responsive or responsible by shutting the public out.

Lawmakers who sincerely want to make government more effective should recognize that public scrutiny works to their advantage.

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