State politicians rush attack on transparency

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State politicians rush attack on transparency

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Through false smiles and promises of open governance, legislators did the exact opposite

Late in February, the Washington State Legislature rushed a bill through the House and Senate in what could only be called a blatant and petulant attack on government transparency after losing a lawsuit at the tail end of 2017.

The lawsuit, brought on by a coalition of news groups led by the Associated Press, claimed that state legislators were abusing language placed in the state’s Public Records Act nearly two decades ago to avoid making documents such as calendars, texts, and emails public.  Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled with the coalition, stating that the statute regarding public records was clear.

On Feb. 22, the state Legislature rushed Senate Bill (SB) 6617 through the House and Senate. No committees, no public hearings, no debate. It was passed with almost no opposition on Feb. 23, in the dark, with little notice. The passing of SB6617 was more akin to a shady deal in a smokey backroom than anything resembling democratic government. Worse yet, these lawmakers had the gall to say that it was actually a victory for transparency.

While true that the bill opens up for public record certain correspondences, such as those with lobbyists, it also would have allowed legislators to make certain exemptions to the Public Records Act, giving them even more power over what records could be released to the public than before.

Fortunately, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee decided to veto the bill after a storm of backlash from the news media and the public. But the fact that the attempt was even made by the Legislature at all, that they thought they could get away with it, shows a sickening contempt for their constituents. A government that respects its voting citizens makes every attempt to be more transparent, not more opaque. The issue is not a partisan one, either. Republicans and Democrats alike voted in favor of a bill that hurts everyone, regardless of their placement on the political spectrum.

It is an issue that hits all too close to home. Not more than two years ago, Pierce faced its own similar dilemma. When journalists from the student newspaper, The Pioneer, attempted to sit in on District Policy and Governance Council (also known as the College Cabinet) meetings , which reviews all proposed policy changes such as sexual assault, plagiarism, smoking, and student discipline, they were told that those meetings were closed to the press. Despite chancellor Dr. Michele Johnson’s insistence that the college has a strong commitment to open government, those meetings – and others – are still closed.

In both cases, one has to wonder why college chancellors and state legislators, who claim to be so in support of transparency and open governance, are so insistent on having closed meetings and exemptions to open-records laws. One has to wonder why, with such a commitment, state government will rush through a bill that allows them to be less open while hem-and-hawing for years over multiple bills that would codify First Amendment rights for the student press.

Both state government and public colleges are institutions that are funded by the citizens’ tax dollars, which means that the public has every right to know how those tax dollars are being used. It is the public, the individuals, who come together to form a democratic society.

Therefore, in this democratic society, it is imperative that the government remembers who serves whom.