Last week was National Sunshine Week, when open government defenders worked to highlight the need for government officials to be transparent and accountable to the citizens they serve.
Among those writing about the need for more transparency reforms was State Attorney General Rob McKenna. McKenna’s first piece was a blog post honoring State Auditor Brian Sonntag for his tireless work to improve government accountability (in-part):
“Sunshine Week, which began Sunday, is a national initiative to promote open government and freedom of information. It’s also a great time to celebrate a true hero of government openness and accountability.
Every four years starting in 1992, a yard sign was seen around the state that read, ‘Hire Brian Sonntag State Auditor.’ The sign represents Brian’s attitude that elected officials are the employees and the people are the boss. Upon being elected — and reelected four times in decisive victories — Brian immediately went to work following through on his promise of servant leadership.
Brian often found that being accountable to the public, as opposed to a political party or a collection of interest groups, landed him in the crosshairs of other elected officials. His tireless search of government waste, for example, made a number of people uncomfortable – especially those defending the status quo. Being a change agent isn’t always easy, yet Auditor Sonntag persevered.
I’ve had the honor of working with Brian on an issue that matters to both of us: access to government information . . .
This Sunshine Week, it’s appropriate to focus on where we’ve succeeded and where we may yet do better to make sure that everyday people have access to government information. But it’s also a great time to remember the gold standard by which future leaders ought to be measured on promoting transparency and accountability. While we won’t have the opportunity to hire Brian Sonntag as State Auditor again, we hope that his example provides inspiration to those who follow in his footsteps.”
Attorney General McKenna also wrote an op-ed for The Tri-City Herald focusing on the fact the Legislature has failed to implement many of the open government reforms he and Sonntag have requested and hinting that it may be time for another open government initiative:
“If you’re about average, every year you pay thousands of tax dollars to various levels of state and local government. That means elected officials are your employees. Yet some of these officials suggest that you be walled off from many records and government meetings.
Many of us believe that unless it severely harms the public interest for you to view a government record or attend a government meeting, you have should have access. Similar thinking spurred a 1974 initiative, I-276, declaring that ‘The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.’
The language of I-276 was appropriate because government transparency is about holding public officials accountable. But unfortunately since the passage of I-276, creating the Washington Public Disclosure Act, legislators have piled on more than 300 new exemptions. These exemptions exclude certain records or meetings from disclosure.
. . . we proposed a bill requiring that public employees be trained to better understand the Open Public Meetings Act, including what qualifies for discussion in executive session. Legislators allowed it to die in committee, meaning neither the full House nor Senate had the opportunity for an up or down vote. Our 2010 and 2011 bills to create an independent office to enforce the Public Records and Open Meetings Act suffered similar deaths.
This year, we proposed legislation to simply allow — not require — the recording of executive sessions. Another quiet committee death.
In 1972, voters said, ‘The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them (and) do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.’
For the time being, it may be that the only way for Washingtonians to retain authority of the government for which they pay is for them to say it again through the initiative process.”
Perhaps one of the components of a new open government initiative could be a requirement to improve legislative transparency. Both McKenna and Sonntag have endorsed our proposed constitutional amendment to help improve legislative transparency.
Below is potential language that is a variation of SB 5419 that the Legislature has failed to act on.
These changes would provide waiting periods for legislation, subject the legislature to the OPMA like every other government entity (except the courts) and ban title only bills.
INCREASING LEGISLATIVE TRANSPARENCY
AN ACT Relating to providing mandatory notice and waiting periods before legislative action; banning title only bills; subjecting the legislature to the open public meetings act; amending RCW 42.30.020; and adding new sections to chapter 44.04 RCW.
BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF WASHINGTON:
NEW SECTION. Sec. 1. A new section is added to chapter 44.04 RCW to read as follows:
(1) All bills introduced, and any proposed substitute, striking amendment, or conference committee report thereon, must be made publicly available to the members of the Legislature and the public at least seventy-two hours before such a bill is eligible for a public hearing, is eligible for legislative action, or is eligible to be voted on by the senate or the house of representatives.
(2) At least seventy-two hours notice shall be given of all public hearings held by any legislative committee. Such notice shall contain the date, time and place of such hearing together with the title and number of each bill, or identification of the subject matter, to be considered at such hearing.
(3) No bill shall be eligible for legislative action of any kind unless it has first been subject to a public hearing in the same session of consideration.
(4) No bill shall be eligible for legislative action on the floor of either the senate or house of representatives until forty-eight hours after it has been placed on the floor calendar.
(5) No bill shall be eligible for final passage in either house of the Legislature unless copies of the bill, in the final form to be passed, have been made available to the members of that house of the Legislature and the public for at least twenty-four hours.
(6) This section may be suspended by a two-thirds vote of the members elected to the house of the Legislature in which it is pending, and every individual consideration of a bill or action suspending this section must be recorded in the journal of the respective house of the Legislature.
NEW SECTION. Sec 2. A new section is added to chapter 44.04 RCW to read as follows:
No bill shall be eligible for public hearing or legislative consideration of any kind unless the bill shall lay forth in full the changes to any act or sections of law. Title only bills shall be prohibited.
Sec. 3. RCW 42.30.020 is amended to read as follows:
As used in this chapter unless the context indicates otherwise:
(1) “Public agency” means:
(a) Any state board, commission, committee, department, educational institution, or other state agency which is created by or pursuant to statute, other than courts and the legislature;
(b) Any county, city, school district, special purpose district, or other municipal corporation or political subdivision of the state of Washington;
(c) Any subagency of a public agency which is created by or pursuant to statute, ordinance, or other legislative act, including but not limited to planning commissions, library or park boards, commissions, and agencies;
(d) Any policy group whose membership includes representatives of publicly owned utilities formed by or pursuant to the laws of this state when meeting together as or on behalf of participants who have contracted for the output of generating plants being planned or built by an operating agency.
(2) “Governing body” means the multimember board, commission, committee, council, or other policy or rule-making body of a public agency, or any committee thereof when the committee acts on behalf of the governing body, conducts hearings, or takes testimony or public comment.
(3) “Action” means the transaction of the official business of a public agency by a governing body including but not limited to receipt of public testimony, deliberations, discussions, considerations, reviews, evaluations, and final actions. “Final action” means a collective positive or negative decision, or an actual vote by a majority of the members of a governing body when sitting as a body or entity, upon a motion, proposal, resolution, order, or ordinance.
(4) “Meeting” means meetings at which action is taken.
[Reprinted from the Washington Policy Center blog]
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