Votes for open government

The state House of Representatives took strong, progressive action last week on two bills that improve citizen access to public information. Now they’re on to the Senate, where they deserve passage and enactment.

House Bill 2015 would require that meeting agendas be posted online by public agencies at least 24 hours before a meeting. It passed the House by a vote of 85-13. Rep. Brad Hawkins (R-Wenatchee) voted in favor of the bill; Rep. Cary Condotta (R-East Wenatchee) voted no. Both represent the 12th District, including the Methow Valley.

The bill provides exceptions for government entities without websites or with fewer than 10 full-time employees. The Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents more than 100 community newspapers in the state, supported the legislation.

The state’s Open Public Meetings Act currently only requires public agencies to issue notices of meetings. Advance information about the agenda gives voters an opportunity to make their voices heard on topics of interest.

The House also approved HB 2121, which would require members of a governing body of a public agency to undergo training on the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act, by a vote of 64-34. Hawkins voted yes; Condotta voted no.

It would be nice if HB 2121 were not necessary. But too many public officials, particularly — but not exclusively — in smaller jurisdictions, either don’t understand the state’s open meetings and open records laws, don’t think they should be required to obey them, or don’t understand the legal consequences of violating them — which can apply to the individual or the government entity.

Often it’s ignorance, uncertainty or fear of punishment by higher-ups that prompts an official to illegally withhold public information. But too often the laws are abused by officials — elected and appointed — who are trying to hide something.

Training will assure that no official can claim they don’t know the laws, or have any excuse not to uphold them.


The 4th opens up

Congressman Doc Hastings’ announcement last week that he won’t seek an 11th term representing central Washington’s 4th Congressional District was perhaps a bit surprising, given his longevity, influence and seeming invincibility at the polls.  But at age 73, with 20 years of service in the House of Representatives, Hastings believes it’s time to step aside and let someone with “new energy” take on the job.

Speculation blossomed immediately about who would seek the seat, and to no one’s surprise Clint Didier — a Pasco rancher and former NFL player who ran unsuccessfully to be the state lands commissioner  — threw his cowboy hat into the ring. Didier’s conservative credentials and name recognition will get some attention, but it’s likely that other candidates will also step up.

Given the political makeup of the district, it’s also possible that under the state’s primary system, the top two contenders to emerge will both be Republicans. The last Democrat to represent the 4th District was Jay Inslee, who was defeated by Hastings in 1992 — and then went on to other things.

Don’t expect the Democrats to concede, however. These days any opening in the House or Senate is regarded as an opportunity by both parties — or in the case of the Republicans, the party’s fractious factions. It would be great to see an election waged over issues of substance by candidates from opposite parties. A Republican-versus-Republican contest to see who can out-conservative the other would be a lot less interesting.

— Don Nelson