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State government clings to double standard

Post by Kim Bradford on March 6, 2010 at 7:35 pm with No Comments »
March 6, 2010 7:35 pm

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

Is it any wonder that city and county officials clamor for relief from open meetings and records laws when they see their counterparts in state government behave as they do?

State officials profess a belief in public disclosure. They’re just not sure it always applies to them.

Lawmakers in particular hold themselves apart from the state’s sunshine laws. They caucus in secret for any reason and insist that their correspondence is somehow constitutionally protected from public dissemination.

They also apparently reserve the right to skip public process in the interests of expediency.

Last week, the Senate Ways and Means Committee called a last-minute hearing to collect public testimony on legislation the public hadn’t seen. This was no housekeeping measure. It was a proposal for a state income tax.

Tim Ford, the attorney general’s open government ombudsman, observed: “It would be illegal for a local government to provide less than 24 hours notice of a special meeting.”

The sequel to Thursday’s performance was Friday’s Ways and Means meeting to vote on another tax bill that had existed in name only until that day. This time, senators dispensed with the charade of soliciting public input.

To be fair, lawmakers aren’t alone in their do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do approach to open government.

The governor herself has made good use of “privilege,” a nebulous exception to the public records act claimed by both the legislative and executive branches. The exemption doesn’t exist explicitly in the law, nor has a court ever verified its legitimacy.

A Thurston County judge recently had an opportunity to weigh in, but stopped short after concluding that even if privilege existed, the governor’s office couldn’t use it to hide an innocuous document summarizing various positions on legislation.

Judge Paula Casey also had this to say: “It is really curious to me, as I’ve said before, that we’ve had the Public Records Act in existence for 30 years now, and there has been no case of any kind that really addresses whether there is such an executive privilege.

“What we do know is that there are many cases from the appellate courts indicating that the Public Records Act exemptions are to be strictly and narrowly construed.”

Strict and narrow should describe any deviation from the principle that the public’s business is to be conducted in public. State leaders should be setting the example. Unfortunately, they too often give themselves a pass.

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