Ford out as open-government ombudsman

Staff writerAugust 22, 2013 

The job in Washington that is supposed to keep a watchful eye on government — from within government — is vacant.

Open-government ombudsman Tim Ford left the state attorney general’s office last week to take a job in the state Senate.

Ford’s former supervisor is handling the duties for now. But Attorney General Bob Ferguson says he will replace Ford and might even restore the ombudsman to a full-time job, as it was before it fell victim to budget cuts.

“There’s no question the position will be filled,” Ferguson said in an interview Wednesday. “I’m determined to maintain it at a minimum of a half-time position, simply because of the unique role the position offers in promoting transparency in government.

“I’m reasonably hopeful we can make it a full-time position, even with the budget restrictions that we have.”

The job is funded out of an account that has 3 percent less money under the current state budget than it did in the last one. Ferguson said that’s a factor as his staff makes the decision, which he hopes will come by the end of September. A search for a new employee would follow that choice.

Ferguson’s predecessor, Rob McKenna, created the job of ombudsman in 2005 and named Ford to the job in 2007. Before long, though, McKenna assigned him to split time between that job and legal work that could be billed to the state Liquor Control Board.

Both Ford and Ferguson said Ford left voluntarily. A former legal counsel to the Building Industry Association of Washington and deputy solicitor general, Ford said he had been looking to move to the Senate. He started Friday in a job on the nonpartisan Senate staff as counsel to the Law and Justice Committee.

Ford said Democrat Ferguson, who took office in January, wants to build upon Republican McKenna’s work on open government. Ford is convinced having an ombudsman to answer questions and advocate on behalf of transparency has had an effect on the culture of government.

The change has come in the form of a series of small moves, he said. For example, a city agreed to reduce its 50-cents-a-page charge for records to 15 cents a page after Ford wrote a letter.

“It’s very rewarding when members of the public call you up as a government employee and say, ‘Thank you for your help,’” Ford said.

While advising the public and reporters, and at times advocating on their behalf, Ford also provided training and informal consultation to state and local officials on open records and open meetings.

The position should be restored to full-time, even if it requires legislation, said Sen. Pam Roach, an Auburn Republican who worked with Ford as a member of the Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee, also known as the Sunshine Committee. The position shouldn’t have been cut, she said.

“Any time we do that, we reduce the amount of oversight the citizens have on their government,” Roach said. “To have an ombudsman’s office is really aimed at allowing the people to have information about their government (from) behind the agency lines.”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ @Jordan_Schrader

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