The more citizens are engaged with their government, whether at the local, state or federal level, the more openly, honestly and effectively that government tends to operate. That’s why each year, the American Society of News Editors and the James L. Knight Foundation spearhead Sunshine Week, a national effort to promote public dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.
As Sunshine Week 2011 gets underway today, a decidedly poor example of government transparency is being set by our own state Legislature. Over the past three years, in particular, public involvement and open debate have routinely fallen victim to leaders who cynically ignore their own righteous talk about openness.
A galling example came Monday, when the state Senate voted 48-1 to require local governments to post agenda details online at least 72 hours before holding a public meeting. A victory for openness, to be sure, but a hypocritical one, in that it followed the Senate’s failure to act on a bill that would have required it to provide similar notice regarding hearings on spending and revenue bills.
As was pointed out by the Washington Policy Center’s Jason Mercier, a leading watchdog on legislative maneuvering, “The message from the Legislature to local governments concerning open and transparent government continues to be ‘do what we say and not what we do.'”
The bill that died without a floor vote, SB 5419, was supported by Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna and Democratic state Auditor Brian Sonntag as an answer to the repeated practice of committees waiving rules and holding hearings on bills, followed by votes, with so little notice that people with an obvious interest in the legislation couldn’t be there to testify. Hearings also have been held, and votes taken, on “title-only” bills, which have no text.
SB 5419 would have required a 24-hour public review period on spending and tax bills, striking amendments or conference committee reports before a public hearing could be held.
That’s apparently too strict a rule for state lawmakers to impose on themselves, even though they’re fine with requiring local governments to provide 72 hours notice of such details.
Democrats control both houses of the Legislature. They set the agenda and run the committees. They’re responsible for the culture of secrecy and cynicism that has become so prevalent in Olympia.
It’s no way to run a government, not in this country, anyway. Rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers who agree need to stand up to their leadership and demand they be held to the same high standards of openness and public inclusion they’re willing to impose on school boards and city councils.