State has a mixed record on open government

“Trust me.”

That is perhaps the least likely phrase in the English language to inspire trust.

When government says, “Trust me,” citizens are reasonably wary.

A free society requires a government that is as open as possible. Government is power, the organized use of force. Excessive secrecy is a hallmark of tyranny.

On the other hand, government openness —letting the ‘sunshine’ in — empowers citizens.

The legislative session just ended in Olympia brought a few new rays of sunshine to state government. Several open government proposals that failed this year have a good chance of success in 2009.

Yet other proposed laws continue to say, “Trust me.”

With Washington State government spending up 33 percent in four years, many citizens are interested in where all those tax dollars are going.

One bright spot this year was legislation to create a searchable website with comprehensive information on state spending, revenues and performance measurements.

The new website promises citizens greater oversight of how government uses its “power of the purse.”

Several unsuccessful proposals aimed to increase other kinds of government information available on the internet, including notices about special government meetings, information from past meetings and any new ordinances or regulations approved by a government agency or board.

The public has a right to know about and attend official government meetings according to the Open Public Meetings Act.

Unfortunately, parts of this law are sometimes ignored.

Today, the maximum penalty for a violation is $100. Legislation nearly passed this year to raise that to $1,000.

One exception to the Open Public Meetings Act permits government officials to hold closed “executive sessions” to talk about personnel issues, lawsuits and real estate negotiations.

These three exceptions make sense, but the State Auditor’s Office has identified numerous executive sessions that either strayed beyond these topics or failed to properly document their reasons.

Yet what can citizens do once they have been shut out of a meeting?

A bill sponsored by Democratic and Republican leaders in the State House of Representatives tried to answer that question.

If passed, it would have required the audio recording of executive sessions.

That way, if challenged later, a judge could listen to the recording and determine if the closed meeting was legal or not.

As long as the executive session was proper, the recording would remain restricted. If the Open Public Meetings Act was violated, the recording could be released and the citizens vindicated.

Both the move to record executive sessions and to increase penalties for Open Public Meetings Act Violations were opposed — with local tax dollars — by the Association of Washington Cities and the Washington State Association of Counties.

Another bill that made progress this year, but still failed to pass, aimed to increase the protection of whistleblowers.

Government workers would have new protections to expose “gross mismanagement, abuse of authority,” or manipulation of scientific or technical information.

They could make a whistleblower report not only to the State Auditor’s Office, but to one of their own supervisors or the State Attorney General.

One successful piece of legislation increases the public’s access to government reports about serious medical errors.

Many other healthcare bills would have prevented public disclosure of broad areas of public records. Perhaps one reason these measures failed is the growing awareness among legislators that citizens take open government seriously.

Vague or overbroad exemptions to open public meetings or the availability of public records have real costs.

Not only do they chip away at the power of the people, but they often lead to government abuses and prolonged court battles.

A vague exemption is a grant of broad powers to government officials and judges.

While open government is not automatically good government, secret power corrupts. H. G. Wells’ vision of The Invisible Man birthed a genre of imaginative stories about the ultimate form of secrecy.

One theme of these tales is that power without responsibility — with complete secrecy —is too dangerous a thing for most men.

The success and near-success of open government legislation this year is important to all Washingtonians. Yet the best way to increase citizens’ control over government is to make that government smaller, to limit its reach to only those areas where collective force is necessary.

Only when government is both limited and swathed in sunshine can citizens remain confident that we are in control.

Trent England is Citizen Action Network director for the Washington Policy Center.

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