“The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.”
— James Madison, “Father of the Constitution,” fourth U.S. president, 1809-1817
We’d like to encourage this state’s residents to take a victory lap during Sunshine Week, March 10-16, the annual commemoration of the rights that citizens enjoy — but must constantly defend — regarding the transparency and openness of their local, state and federal governments.
And we’ll hand out laurel wreaths — figurative ones, as bay laurel trees run about $40 at the nursery — to some 19,000 who inundated the governor’s office last year urging him to veto hastily presented and adopted legislation that attempted to largely exempt state lawmakers from the state’s public records law for which nearly all other public officials and agencies in the state are expected to comply.
That rebuke by the public, no doubt, was on the minds of lawmakers when they again proposed legislation during this year’s session that sought to find a “compromise” between legislators and those in the media who have sued to get state lawmakers to fairly apply the Public Records Act to themselves and allow for the release of documents, such as emails, calendars, reports and other communications, to the media and the public when requested.
This year’s legislation, Senate Bill 5784, was an improvement over the previous year’s attempt, offering to make available a broader range of documents and allowing for the request of older documents. Yet it still fell short of the spirit of the Public Records Act — made law in 1972 by a citizen’s initiative with 72 percent approval — because it sought to differentiate between state lawmakers and other officials and agencies and would have withheld information from disclosure related to the “deliberative process” of legislation as well as background documents relating to the investigation of harassment complaints in the Legislature.
But the measure’s prime sponsor, Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, made clear he would not pursue the bill if it faced criticism from the media. During a public hearing last month, it did.
“The media didn’t like the bill, so the bill is dead,” Pedersen said in an interview with Crosscut.
It and a similar bill in the House went no further this session, now leaving the issue to the state Supreme Court, which is expected to hear oral arguments this spring in an appeal of a decision early last year by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese that held that the offices of individual legislators were subject to the state records act.
We won’t fault Pedersen or others who sponsored the bill for seeking a way forward to avoid a court ruling, but we couldn’t agree with his goal of striking a balance between “open government and effective government.” There’s no balance to be struck there because — and we think Madison would agree — effective government requires transparency by government officials and agencies who are responsible for the advancement and diffusion of the information they have in their control.
Regardless of how the state Supreme Court rules, issues will remain for the Legislature, the press and the public to address to protect the viability of this state’s sunshine laws — the Public Records Act and the Open Public Meetings Act — especially as governments and other agencies continue the transition from paper to electronic records and work to curb the abuses of those who seek to use the law to their personal or commercial advantage.
But this can’t and isn’t — as 19,000 demonstrated last year — of import only to public officials and the media. To be of any use in protecting liberty, the rights afforded in those sunshine laws must be employed; by attending public meetings, requesting information and then using the knowledge gained to guide our governments and shape their decisions.
Those of you rounding the corner on your victory lap — laurel wreath on your brow — you’re not done running.