Secrecy a threat to public records

OLYMPIA — Washington state residents are on the verge of losing their constitutionally granted right to know what goes on in local governments, an open-government activist says.

Former state Rep. Toby Nixon, president of the Washington State Coalition for Open Government, said he hopes the Legislature will take action this year to protect that right.

“Without access to information about what the government is doing, we lose control,” Nixon said. “Whoever has the most knowledge has the most power.”

The nonprofit group hopes that lawmakers during this legislative session will restrict the use of attorney-client privilege, protect public access to government workers’ birth dates and push for recording of closed government meetings.

Most city, county and state government records and meetings are required to be open to the public, under state law. Some records, however, fall under the numerous exemptions and aren’t available to the public.

These exemptions often lead to lawsuits. Because judges tend to interpret them very broadly, exemptions keep expanding to cover more and more types of record.

There are reasons that the state needs to keep some records exempt. A lawmaker is proposing to keep birth dates exempt from public disclosure. Rep. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, supports the bill. He said birth dates and other personal information obtained by criminals can ruin people’s lives.

Still, State Attorney General Rob McKenna said use of exemption ought to be more limited. “Privilege should only apply when there’s litigation or a real threat of litigation,” he said.

Nixon said restoring the original intent of one of the attorney-client privilege is of highest priority to the coalition. The privilege protects clients from having their attorneys testify against them.

“We are continuing to see the use of attorney-client privilege exemption expanding and we believe it’s the greatest threat to open government,” Nixon said.

The coalition will also be pushing for audio recordings of executive sessions, government meetings closed to the public, Nixon said. The recordings would be protected from disclosure and only reviewed by a judge in case of a lawsuit.

There are practical reasons for government to go into executive sessions, but it is impossible for the public to know what is going on in these meetings, said Timothy Ford, assistant attorney general for government accountability.

Having a record is especially beneficial for newly elected officials, who can use it to understand the history of some of the issues, he said.

Rep. Mark Miloscia, D-Federal Way, said he will sponsor the legislation, requested by the attorney general’s office.

“People tend to get carried away in executive session,” Miloscia said. “This is one way for citizens to eliminate this perception of illegality.”

Although many people worry a tape might get out, Miloscia said he is confident the judicial branch will make sure this doesn’t happen.

Another issue on the coalition’s agenda is to keep public employees’ birth dates open to the public — a provision threatened by legislation proposing that birth dates be exempt from disclosure.

Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, is the lawmaker who sponsored the bill last year to help fight identity theft. Birth dates, she said, are often used to steal information. “Identity theft is such a big deal,” Appleton said, “I think it trumps certain things.”

This change, Nixon said, will make it very difficult to match employee data with lists containing important information, such as lists of felons and sex offenders.

But Appleton said employees’ Social Security numbers and their mothers’ maiden names — not currently exempt — are bigger and more important tools for matching employee data.

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