The public’s legal right to know what its government is doing, or already did, is always at risk.
Protecting that right is something journalists and open government advocates continue to press for as new legislation and lawsuits erode the laws on the books.
A panel discussion and public forum is planned Wednesday to discuss what threatens public access to meetings and public records.
“Everyone who cares about what government is doing will learn something at this meeting and contribute to it as well,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. Nixon is a Microsoft program manager and a former state representative.
In 1972, state law allowed just 10 reasons to withhold public documents, a number that has multiplied to 300 or as high as 500 by some estimates, Nixon said. “That’s just a numerical example of how people are losing access to government records,” Nixon said.
The group is targeting government’s misuse of attorney-client privilege as “the most serious problem facing public access in Washington,” Nixon said. Too often, it’s used as a blanket excuse for withholding information anytime a lawsuit is possible, he said.
Elected officials from across Snohomish County are expected at the forum, said Neal Pattison, Herald executive editor and scheduled moderator of the panel discussion.
Public access is protected through ongoing education of government officials, he said. Often, good public officials find themselves torn between granting public access and feeling vulnerable to lawsuits by disclosing too much, he said.
“The natural pull of any organization is toward privacy and secrecy, and too often that’s unnecessary and not beneficial to the public,” Pattison said.
Other panelists include former Monroe City Councilman Chad Minnick, who has pushed to broadcast council meetings and put city documents online; state archivist Jerry Handfield, a former president of the open government coalition; and Herald reporter Scott North, who used legally protected access to state public documents to investigate cable barrier accidents on I-5 and problems with corroded state Steel Electric ferries.
Open government meeting planned
The Washington Coalition for Open Government and The Herald newspaper plan a panel discussion on the public’s right to access government records and meetings from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Monroe-Sky Valley Family YMCA, 14033 Fryelands Blvd., Monroe. More information is available at the Washington Coalition for Open Government, 206-782-0393 or at washingtoncog.org.
Reporter Jeff Switzer: 425-339-3452 or email@example.com.