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March 17, 2008
OPINION: Sustaining sunshine in a complicated world

By Attorney General Rob McKenna
Special for Sunshine Week

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.

In fact, “T” for transparency is the first of the six core values of the Attorney General’s Office

  • Transparency
  • Honesty
  • Respect
  • Innovation
  • Competition 
  • Ethics

As technology advances, the sheer volume of generated information increases. Maintaining transparency becomes more complicated and time-consuming.

But that’s not a reason to abandon our goals. Rather, it becomes more important than ever to manage our records-tracking systems and to develop new ways to use technology to make government even more transparent.

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 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.  The new law helps the public quantify the priorities they have for government and better understand the choices government makes when revenues are tight.

Also this session, Auditor Brian Sonntag and I requested 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.  I will continue to pursue this legislation in the future.

Finally, using technology to reduce the cost of transparency and support sustainability, our office has developed model rules on electronic records and developed new technology to better store and retrieve e-mail.

The electronic model rules help governments reduce the amount of paper documents they provide to requestors by giving guidance on providing records electronically. With technology, thousands of pages of documents can be provided in an electronic format that helps reduce the amount of paper used and allows the requestor to more easily search for the information they are seeking. 

Our new e-mail storage and retrieval system resulted in national recognition for our IT director in Government Technology for allowing the agency to not only search and retrieve e-mail text but documents attached to that e-mail.

The recent Sunshine Week poll indicates that more than 90 percent of respondents feel open government is important both at the state and local levels.

Let’s use technology in our favor and increase transparency for those we serve.


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