Senator led fight to bring open government to Web

January 29, 2013 

As the Legislature steams along with its current cast of characters, we all hold memories of many fine people who have participated in the past. What they have done to benefit our state will live on in very concrete ways, such as better access to open government.

On Wednesday, the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG) will honor former state Sen. Bob Morton with the first Ballard/Thompson Award for advocacy for open government. Morton, a Kettle Falls resident, served in the Legislature for 21 years until he resigned in December. Morton had served the 7th Legislative District since 1991, including two terms in the House of Representatives. He had served in the Senate since 1995.

The coalition will be honoring Morton for his persistent efforts to improve the state Open Public Meetings Act. This law is crucial to keeping government open in Washington.

His final win for open government is important in this increasingly digital age and is worthy of notice. In the 2012 session, he led passage of a bill, SB5355, that requires agencies to post notice of special meetings on their websites. Before that legislation, all an agency had to do to call a special session was notify the individual members of the group and any members of the media who had a written request for such notices on file.

Today, of course, we all participate with the media of sharing information to enormous audiences with just a few keystrokes. And even traditional media increasingly rely on the Internet. So the new requirement to post on the Internet alerts anyone with Internet access to special meetings as well.

Advance notice of meetings can make a real difference in the conduct of government. One of the people speaking on behalf of Morton’s bill was a Kitsap County woman who had been terminated from a government role during a meeting that an agency called “special.”

It was special, all right, but not in a good way: They did not tell her or anyone else in advance about the meeting, saying no media outlet had filed a request for written notification. Such darkness in public policy is clearly not right; that’s secret government, and not what we stand for in Washington state and the rest of the United States.

Today, the agency would have to at least post notice on its website.

“Sen. Morton may not be as flashy and outspoken as some members of the Legislature, but his tenacity and perseverance in pursuit of strengthening our open meetings law is exactly what we need in Olympia,” said the WCOG President Toby Nixon. “Sen. Morton has been a consistent sponsor and supporter of enhancing government transparency, and well deserves the honor of being the inaugural recipient of the Ballard-Thompson Award.”

The name of the award is also soaked in the Legislature’s history. The Ballard/Thompson Award is named in honor of former Speaker of the House Clyde Ballard, a Republican, and former state senator and chief clerk of the House, Alan Thompson, a Democrat. Both were founding members of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

The annual award is meant for legislators who have demonstrated “outstanding dedication to the cause of open government.”

No award was issued in 2011, the first year nominations were open. Thus, Morton is the first winner. The coalition will applaud him at a reception Jan. 30 in the Legislative Building.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government is an independent and nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the state’s open government laws and protecting the public’s access to government at all levels.

Members of the coalition include individual citizen activists and representatives of government, media, law, education, labor, business and public policy organizations. Members come from all colors in the political spectrum, united in a belief that only by comparing knowledge and advice can we open government to more light.

Today, we honor Morton for bringing light.

Walter Neary, a board member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government who served on the Lakewood City Council 2004-11, was business and technology editor of The Olympian 1997-99. For more information about WCOG, visit washingtoncog.org

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