Without public records and open meetings, democracy and government accountability would flounder.
America hasn’t always prized open government. Congress didn’t pass the Freedom of Information Act until 1966. Washington’s Public Records Act followed in 1972. Fed-up voters passed it by initiative.
Before that, the people had no right to see public records. Sometimes agencies and elected officials would share, especially if the documents didn’t contain anything embarrassing. But too often, secrecy was their preference.
Even after those laws, some elected officials continued to fight disclosure. Washington lawmakers tried to exempt themselves from the Public Records Act in 2018, but outraged citizens rose up, persuading the governor to veto the bill.
This year, lawmakers are bifurcating with some good measures and some bad.
On the sunny side, a few bills are advancing to help the public track government. For example, House Bill 1056 addresses the suddenly very real need for meeting notices and public access during a declared emergency.
House Bill 1329 goes a step further and guarantees the public the right to speak at government meetings or at least submit written testimony in advance. That one is especially important to ensure that Washingtonians have a chance to participate in their government, not simply observe it.
But there are clouds. Lawmakers want the state to keep more secrets. A half dozen new exceptions to the Public Records Act are in play on topics ranging from election security audits to who receives loans and grants under a new state program.
Before voting on those exemptions, lawmakers should heed the words of Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen. “Exemptions to the public records act need to be considered carefully and approved only in the narrowest and most strongly justified terms,” he said at a recent hearing. “Transparency in government is a fundamental value in our system. And we have too often made exceptions, loopholes and exclusions to the Public Records Act.”
One perennial issue is title-only bills, which are empty husks that the majority party has used to ram through policy goals at the end of the session with little chance for public oversight. At least for the 2021 mostly remote session, the state Senate hit the pause button on those when it adopted its emergency parliamentary rules. But the temporary rule change doesn’t preclude them in the future.
Disappointingly, lawmakers killed two Republican proposals to reform title-only bills permanently.
Spend a moment this Sunshine Week, the annual celebration of government transparency, to reflect on where Washington and America would be without government transparency. If the picture scares you – and it should – send a quick email to your lawmakers reminding them that you’re watching.
Corrected: This editorial was corrected March 16 to reflect that the state Senate temporarily banned title-only bills during the 2021 legislative session when it adopted its emergency rules.