By Attorney General Rob McKenna
Special to The Tri-City Herald in honor of National Sunshine Week
In a recent poll conducted for National Sunshine Week, March 16-22, more than 90 percent of respondents said open government is important both at the state and local levels.
The question is how do our state and local government officials feel? Based on the outcome of the most recent legislative session, the answer is mixed.
As both Attorney General and a former King County Council member, I have always believed in the core principle of transparency in government as a means of building trust and demonstrating accountability.
This session, I joined state auditor Brian Sonntag in supporting a new budget transparency measure requested by the Washington Policy Center and approved during the recent Legislative session. Senate Bill 6818 directs the state Office of Financial Management to develop a searchable Web site to help the public identify how the state is spending their money.
It’s important for people to know how much government costs and where their tax dollars are being spent. Now headed to the Governor for her signature, this measure will help the public quantify the priorities they have for government and better understand the choices government makes when revenues are tight.
Thanks to the support of all of your local legislators, we scored a solid victory for open government.
I also joined Auditor Sonntag in requesting legislation (HB 3292) that would have required government entities to record executive sessions-- closed-door meetings where government officials discuss highly sensitive issues such as personnel issues, real estate transactions and other issues as allowed under the Open Public Meetings Act.
On Feb. 4, 2008, the Auditor reported that the Benton City Council “convened 12 executive sessions (in 2005 and 2006) for reasons that were not allowable under state law.” On 18 occasions, the auditor reported the council convened executive sessions to discuss litigation, but in some cases an attorney was not present, in others the auditor was unable to tell and in one case the council acknowledged it violated the law by going into an executive session without an attorney present. (Audit Report)
Benton City is not alone. The auditor has recorded more than 450 instances in just three years where executive sessions were an issue in their audits of local governments. The law is clear that officials must state why they are calling an executive session, and limit its duration to a fixed period, to help assure transparency.
A digital auditor recorder with more than 130 hours of storage and software to download the audio to a secure server costs as little as $60 and takes up as much room as a candy bar. Such a small investment could help assure government accountability and provide the public with peace of mind.
At the same time, an executive session taping law would provide government decision-makers some protection against claims of improper executive sessions, saving thousands of dollars in legal fees and arguments when disputes arise.
Unfortunately, while this bill was voted out of committee, it did not progress any further this session.
This is a disappointing loss in the fight for government transparency and I expect the state auditor and I will continue to pursue this legislation in the future.
Access to government information is crucial in an information age. Sunshine Week is much, much more than an opportunity for policymakers and newspapers to talk about open government.
Sunshine Week is the time for the public to remind government officials that the work they do matters. People care and they want to be informed.