This is Sunshine Week — not in the meteorological sense, but in the open-government sense — an annual event that spotlights the role freedom of information plays in our daily lives. As the website notes (www.sunshineweek.org), it’s not just news media but also civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and other organizations that participate.
I say this every year, but it bears repeating: When we talk about public meetings, public records and the public’s right to know, we are talking about you. Public means public. While the media often act as surrogates in the quest for information, it’s important to remember that when government officials keep things from us, they are keeping them from you.
It’s part of our job to watchdog government at all levels to keep the flow of information coming. But it’s not exclusively our battle — more fundamentally, it’s yours. And it’s ongoing.
The government you are paying for has a responsibility to operate openly. Unfortunately, government has a tendency to resist that notion. Elected bodies meet secretly, or abuse the executive session rules, or don’t make agendas and materials available in a timely manner (if at all). Individual elected officials embrace secrecy to protect their turf.
Similarly, it’s often too difficult, time-consuming and costly to get public records that should be handed over without an argument. Yes, there are some abuses, but they are rare and don’t justify limiting the rest of us with burdensome forms and procedures.
More than 40 years ago, Washington’s voters approved the Public Records Act. Since then, the Legislature has shamed itself by steadily tacking on what now amounts to several hundred exemptions to the act, mostly at the behest of special interests. Efforts to whittle down that list have gone nowhere.
It’s not always a losing battle in Olympia. The Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center recently summarized open government actions at the just-concluded legislative session. Perhaps most notable was the passage of HB 2105, which requires public agencies with governing bodies to post their agendas online in advance of meetings. The Legislature also passed SB 5964, requiring public officials to receive training on the state’s open government and public records laws. Additionally, Gov. Jay Inslee promised not to claim executive privilege to hold back information, as his predecessor Chris Gregoire did.
After 40 years of covering the news, it still baffles me that elected officials think the information belongs to them, or that they can justify keeping it from us for some reason (usually about covering their own you-know-whats). If you don’t want to be in the public eye and answer to the responsibility of open government, don’t waste our time by running for office.
Oddly, it’s historically been the “liberal” end of the spectrum that pushes hardest for access — which strikes me as strange. Philosophically, conservatives should be demanding openness in government, as they are less likely to trust it.
It’s hard to know where to begin in assessing the federal government’s relentless disdain for openness. Administration after administration has failed us, and when the “secrets” are revealed they are inevitably embarrassing for those involved. As for the Obama presidency — the promise for more access and openness is a transparent sham.
That’s not the kind of transparency we should expect. But we’ll never get the access we deserve if we don’t keep demanding it. Sunshine Week is a great opportunity to remind ourselves that information goes hand-in-hand with freedom. To make that happen, every day needs to be Sunshine Day.