As the state’s new Sunshine Committee convened for the first time Tuesday, its controversial chairman was trying hard to get off on the right foot. “Good government is open government,” said Tom Carr, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire to head the panel that will weigh in on the hundreds of exemptions that are weighing down the state’s public disclosure act.
Carr’s words were obviously crafted to reassure open-government advocates who had criticized his appointment as chairman, given his record as Seattle city attorney of working to shield public records from public view.
Gregoire gave them further reason for concern later in the week when she refused to release the identities of some folks who weren’t chosen to serve on the committee. Responding to a public records request by the Associated Press, the governor cited an exemption to the public records law that says applicants for public employment can be kept under wraps.
Her interpretation of the law is a monumental stretch, at best. Volunteers on an advisory committee are public employees? The two newspaper executives on the Sunshine Committee would chafe under that definition. Other officials who appointed members, Attorney General Rob McKenna and Auditor Brian Sonntag, said they had no problem turning over the requested records.
A governor withholding documents regarding a sunshine committee is about as stark as irony gets.
Washingtonians value government openness and accountability, as they demonstrated in 1972 when they overwhelmingly approved Initiative 276, a ground-breaking measure that led to what became the state’s Public Disclosure Act. Its intent was clear: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that service them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”
But the years have taken on toll on that sentiment. Various interests have taken turns watering it down. A law that started with a mere 10 exemptions now is bloated by more than 300 including the one the governor “found” last week.
Gregoire’s action underscores the need for this committee. Carr’s opening reassurances are welcome, but the committee’s action, and the Legislature’s response to it, will be the measure of its success.