By Attorney General Rob McKenna
Special to the Yakima Herald-Republic for National Sunshine Week
A recent National Sunshine Week poll indicates that more than 90 percent of respondents feel 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.
Led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Sunshine Week runs March 16 through 22. An annual event, Sunshine Week emphasizes the public’s right to know what government is doing, and why.
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.
Advancements in technology are providing more tools to help us achieve greater government transparency, but these tools need the support of government officials if they are to be truly effective.
This session, I was proud to support a new budget transparency measure requested by the Washington Policy Center and approved during the recent Legislative session. Senate Bill 6818, supported by every member of the Yakima legislative delegation, 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. Citizens need to be informed about the cost of government and where their tax dollars are being spent.
Now awaiting the governor’s signature, this bill will help the public quantify the priorities they have for government and better understand the choices government makes when revenues are tight. Score one point for open government.
As the Yakima Herald-Republic has reported, I also joined Auditor Brian Sonntag in requesting legislation (HB 3292) that would have required government entities to record executive sessions. Emphasizing technology once again, Auditor Sonntag and I recommended using a digital audio recorder to capture the proceedings in executive sessions. Those are meetings where government officials meet behind closed doors to discuss highly sensitive issues such as personnel issues, real estate transactions and other issues as allowed under the Open Public Meetings Act.
The state Auditor has noted 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, such a 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.
Despite strong support from editorial boards like the Yakima Herald-Republic and by your local legislators, this bill did not pass. That’s one point against open government. I expect Auditor Sonntag and I will continue to pursue it in the future.
Wins and losses in the field of open government should be carefully tallied. Every citizen should know where their elected leaders stand on these issues and should urge them to support transparency at every opportunity.
That is the spirit of Sunshine Week.