Sunshine Week got its start in 2002 as an annual effort by civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools, newspapers and broadcast outlets to foster a discussion about the need for open government — especially the public’s access to government records. This year’s commemoration comes at a time when open government issues have moved front and center at the nation’s highest levels of government.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton faced severe criticism for her practice as secretary of state of conducting government businesses on a private email server.Meanwhile, the administration President Donald Trump has its own issues, whether it’s his questioning the accuracy of previous government job numbers, or his administration’s removal of climate change information from government websites, or suspending protections for Department of Energy whistleblowers, or calling the news media the “opposition party.”
Transparency is also a state issue, which Washington voters recognized in 1972, when they gave 72 percent approval to an initiative that later became the Public Records Act.
There are examples in which the state has stuck to the letter and the spirit of the law. Gov. Jay Inslee has acknowledged he had occasionally sent messages to staffers on a private account, and his office released emails to those who requested them. The Olympian newspaper has noted that the state Military Department released copies of railroads’ reports on the number of large oil trains passing through the state, unlike some states. The state Auditor’s Office has conducted training sessions aimed at educating local government officials about the Public Records Act and the Open Public Meetings Act.
Speaking of the Legislature, every year brings efforts to tack on more exemptions to the more than 400 that already exist in the Public Records Act. This year’s proposals are more focused than in some years; one measure seeks to arrive at a reasonable compromise on how much money local governments can charge for document requests. The balancing act involves maintaining easy public access while trying to discourage overly broad requests from citizens who are essentially trolling for information.
Another bill, passed overwhelmingly by the House, would allow the state to withhold the names of people reporting wolf attacks along with the names of the state wildlife agents who responded to the attacks. Proponents say the parties need protection from threats by those opposed to killing predators. We’ve seen this issue before in the election realm, when financial contributors to sensitive political causes or ballot initiatives seek to have their names kept private. In both cases, the same principles apply: Anti-harassment laws allow aggrieved parties to take legal action against the perpetrators.
So, yes, the law does work, but education of public officials and vigilance by the public and press are necessary to make it so.