Secretive nature of Legislature, candidates is a bad trend

As the 2010 campaign season heads into its final weeks, it's time to hold legislative candidates accountable for their views on openness and transparency in all government actions.

Most South Sound legislative candidates haven’t bothered to answer a questionnaire posed to them by the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

That’s unfortunate because the 2010 legislative session was one of the most secretive in recent memory. It’s important to elect lawmakers in November who will reverse that will spurn secrecy and act to improve public access to records and throw open the doors of government meetings.

In a report compiling legislative abuses after the 2010 legislative session, the Washington Policy Center noted how Democrats used their lopsided majorities in the House and Senate to rush sometimes flawed bills through the legislative process — often without giving the public time to read the bills, let alone react to them.

The policy center, a conservative think tank with offices in Olympia and Seattle, said the Legislature:

 • Routinely cancelled legislative rules requiring five-day notice before holding a hearing on a bill.

 • Provided inadequate notice of the time, room number and subject matter of public hearings.

 • Voted on bills the same day details were made available to the public.

 • Held public hearings on bills with no text.

That’s right, lawmakers foolishly voted for ghost or title-only bills without any idea what those bills would eventually say.

The details of abuse in the policy center’s study should alarm Washington residents because some of the most egregious violations of public trust occurred on significant policy issues such as budget and tax increases. And legislators who are willing to abuse the intent of open government laws in this state are unlikely to force other government entities to follow the rules.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government has compiled a questionnaire focused on 11 key government reform issues. Candidates were asked to take a “yes” or “no” stance on topics including recording of executive sessions of public agencies and the requirement of open government training be provided to government employees and elected officials.

Each candidate’s survey has been posted on the WCOG Web site at www.washingtoncog.org.

“The Washington Coalition for Open Government is happy to be able to provide this service to our members and to the people of Washington so they will know more about where the candidates stand on government openness, transparency and accountability,” said Toby Nixon, president of the coalition. “I hope they will make note of which candidates failed to respond to our survey, and ask those candidates pointed questions about where they really stand on the people’s right to know what their government is doing.”

Regrettably, only a handful of South Sound legislative candidates answered the open government questionnaire. By primary election day just three candidates — Steve Robinson in the 22nd District of Olympia and Thurston County, and Nancy Williams and Linda Simpson of the 35th District of Mason, Thurston, Grays Harbor and Kitsap counties — responded.

That left 20 candidates in the 2nd, 20th, 22nd and 35th legislative districts who declined to go the record.

It’s not too late for candidates who survived the primary. Voters deserve to know where they stand on the release of legislative and court records, whether government agencies should be able to withhold documents based on attorney-client privilege and whether closed-door executive sessions should be tape recorded in the event a judge needs to determine whether the closed door session violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

The questionnaire also asks about the handling of public record requests, training for government employees on open meeting and open record laws and improving access to electronic records.

At a time when citizen distrust of government is at a peak, legislative candidates have an obligation to disclose their views on key government issues.

When legislative candidates come knocking on the door soliciting votes, ask them if they have completed the open government questionnaire. Then check out the open government website to review their answers. Voter vigilance is the key to openness, transparency and accountability in government operations.