Making the case that the Washington State Redistricting Commission flouted open meeting laws is easy. It did, plain and simple.
But what made the actions in its final public meeting so egregious is that the four voting members of the bipartisan commission essentially hid their discussions and actions from citizens and the press.
The commission’s sleight of hand began shortly after chair Sarah Augustine brought the Nov. 15 online meeting to order and called roll. All four voting commissioners were present: Democrats Brady Walkinshaw and April Sims, and Republicans Joe Fain and Paul Graves.
Commissioners approved the minutes from the previous meeting and promptly disappeared behind closed doors for a series of deliberations. Had all four met together, the state Open Public Meetings Act — RCW 42.30 — would require that they meet in public. Instead, they skated around the law by meeting in groups of two. They thought that so long as they had less than a quorum in each group, it wasn’t a meeting under the definition of the law.
The commission faced a midnight deadline to finalize its work. Minutes before that deadline, the four commissioners held a series of public votes on documents that observers never saw. We have to wonder how many of the documents were even in final form.
Commissioners then quickly voted to adjourn without elaboration. They scheduled a news conference for the following morning — and later canceled it. Eventually, they conceded they had failed to meet their required deadline to complete their work.
Because of the commission’s secret deliberations, citizens that night were unable to judge for themselves whether the process was thoughtful and fair — or how their input was considered.
The task of drawing Washington state’s legislative and congressional districts now falls to the state Supreme Court. If ever a moment calls for transparency, it is this one.
The four redistricting commissioners had a difficult job. Their work was based on the census, a contentious and complicated process resulting in late data, and an unproven mapping process. Commissioners had to deal with technological challenges, criticism, and even multiple definitions of “fair” over how voters are grouped, boundaries drawn and terms of office set.
But commissioners also had an obligation to do the public’s business in public.
Washington state’s Open Public Meetings Act says:
“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
The highlight of the act is requiring deliberations to be conducted openly. The public should know what happened to all that testimony. How was it used in the final districts?
The people have an interest in what is done in their name. This situation isn’t only about the lines on a map; it is about the public’s legitimate interest in their government. The people have a right to know.
Consequences of closed meetings and private dealings include:
∙ Bad process produces bad outcomes;
∙ Taxpayer money is wasted;
∙ Legislators are deprived of public support to counter outside influence that may not be in the best interest of communities.
Government secrecy is expensive, according to a 2018 study that examined the effects of less government monitoring when local newspapers close. It found higher government wages and deficits, and increased likelihoods of unplanned expenditures. Municipal borrowing costs increased approximately $650,000 per issue when jurisdictions went to the bond market.
When the public attends, observes and comments on business conducted by elected or appointed officials, they act as counterweights to the interests of those who are paid to represent a particular viewpoint or project. Citizens in open meetings support the public interest; that is almost impossible to do if the public isn’t there.
Washington has a good Open Public Meetings Act. Let’s use it.