Published June 25, 2012
Candidates must take stand on access to records
It’s still more than four months to the general election, but not too soon for all the state government candidates to get specific about where they stand on open access to public records. By an overwhelming majority in 1972 – a 72 percent yes vote – Washington state voters approved an initiative that created the state Public Records Act. The initiative included only 10 exemptions, specifying circumstances under which disclosure could be blocked. The number of exemptions to public access has grown to almost 400 today, severely limiting access to public information and undermining the transparency of government intended by the Public Records Act. Credit Attorney General Rob McKenna for sensing in 2007 that the ideal of open government was going awry. He formed, with legislative approval, what is known as the Sunshine Committee, a 13-member group of government and news media representatives, charged with reviewing exemptions to the open records law. The committee then recommends repealing or amending exemptions to the Legislature. That sounds good, but it has been largely ineffective in slowing the rate of restrictions on the public’s access to government records. The reason for this is simple: Legislators mostly ignore the committee’s work. Proving their interest in creating less transparency, rather than more, the Legislature has been adding about a half-dozen exemptions every year. Only a few of the committee’s recommendations have been enacted. State Sen. Adam Kline, a Seattle Democrat, recently quit the committee because it focuses too much on openness and not enough on privacy. In his letter of resignation, he said, “The sad fact is that there is not an equal but opposite representation on the committee for the public’s interest in personal privacy.” And he suggested the committee include someone from the American Civil Liberties Union. As it is currently configured, there are 10 government representatives and only three from the news media. This is the absolute wrong direction for the committee to go, and totally opposes the wishes of those who voted to create more open government in the early ’70s. If the public is going to claw back, or even slow down, the constriction of access to public records, it must elect legislators committed to transparency in government. The public must identify and support those legislators who will take the Sunshine Committee’s recommendations seriously, and reject those who continue to create new exemptions to disclosure year after year.