By Renee Radcliff Sinclair / For The Herald
March 14-20 marks a national observation known as “Sunshine Week,” an annual event designed to promote open government. And this year, of all years, is a good time to reflect on why open government matters more than ever.
A year ago, on the cusp of the pandemic, life as we knew it was about to change.
Major institutions and the centerpieces of our lives — school, work, church, and government — all closed their doors to the public as we collectively grappled with life under quarantine. Lawmakers in Olympia barely completed the 2020 session before the world came to what felt like a complete halt. It was perhaps the last time we were truly experiencing public engagement in the traditional sense.
Fast forward to March 2021, where accessing state government — or any government proceedings — looks a lot different. In an all-virtual world, the idea of a “public” meeting rests heavily on the strength of your internet connection.
Here in Washington state, TVW, a non-partisan TV and streaming network dedicated to coverage of all three branches of government, has continued to shine a light on government proceedings during this unprecedented time. In fact, TVW has been a leader in providing this kind of access for more than 25 years, giving Washingtonians a front-row view of the legislative session, state Supreme Court hearings and other agency meetings and hearings.
During the pandemic, TVW has continued to provide that same exceptional access to the public, from the governor’s daily press conferences to health briefings from the Department of Health, and now, to the 2021 Legislature and its all-remote legislative session.
During a normal legislative session, the public has good access to Olympia and the legislative process through in-person testimony and meetings with lawmakers. Even so, some decisions are made out of public view.
Now, during covid-19 pandemic, the challenge is even steeper with an all-remote Legislature and no in-person meetings or public engagement, jeopardizing the very idea of “public” meetings. Fortunately, TVW makes it easy to connect.
In fact, TVW offers the only access available to the Legislature this session. This includes all legislative committee hearings, floor action and press availabilities for the House, Senate, Democrats, Republicans and the governor. The full winter docket for the Washington State Supreme Court is also available as well as oral arguments before Washington’s three courts of appeals, as is archived video content from previous year’s legislative sessions, Supreme Court sessions, state agencies and more.
Remarkably, this kind of access is unheard of in many other states. Some state governments don’t allow the public to see what they are doing, and some still don’t allow for remote testimony. Those restrictions are even tighter now in some states, with capitol campuses completely closed.
Covid-19 has pulled back the curtain on many aspects of our daily lives, exposing societal inequalities and raising public policy questions we expect our elected officials to address. Absent resources like TVW, these conversations in our state would be taking place offline, out of the view of the public.
This week, as we reflect on the importance of open government, I encourage you to seek out TVW online at tvw.org, through your local cable system or via Roku, to watch your elected government officials attempt to solve these challenging issues. Even in a limited virtual environment, I think you will find this window into open government is a welcome ray of sunshine in an otherwise stormy year.
Because without that sunlight, we are all in the dark.
Renee Radcliff Sinclair, a former state representative, is the current president and chief executive of TVW, Washington state’s public affairs network.