Pop quiz: Who pays the larger fine? A driver who’s caught speeding 15 mph over the speed limit or a public official who knowingly attends a meeting behind closed doors in violation of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act?
The speeding fine is $166. Violating the state law passed to ensure public accountability and transparency will only cost the public official $100, the same as when the legislation was first passed in 1971.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has proposed legislation this session that would change that, House Bill 2353 and its companion Senate Bill 6171, increasing the penalty to $500 for a first offense and adding a new penalty of $1,000 for a repeat violation. The $500 fine, Ferguson said in a press release, would bring the fine in line with inflation since the law was enacted.
The intent of the Open Public Meetings Act was to ensure that the public has access to meetings of city councils, school boards, fire district boards, state agencies and other public boards, and that those boards’ deliberations and actions are open to the public, a vital step in our democracy and for responsive government.
But the current fine of $100 for violations — and no provision for repeat offenders — is no longer much of a deterrent.
Bringing the fine back to its original financial punch adds to other steps Ferguson has taken in recent years. In 2013, his office established the Open Government Ombudsman to take complaints about possible violations of the Open Meetings Act or the Public Records Act. That was followed with legislation requested by the agency and signed into law that requires public officials be trained in the provisions of the meetings and records acts. About 5,200 have completed the office’s in-person training, and its online training videos have been watched 20,000 times.
The mandatory training is important because it removes the ability for a public official to claim ignorance, that he or she didn’t “knowingly” attend a meeting that should have been open to the public.
Both House and Senate bills have been scheduled for committee hearings.The House Committee on State Government and Senate Committee on Government Operations and Security will discuss the bills Thursday in Olympia.
The legislation also won’t cure a poor decision by the state Supreme Court last year. In a 6-3 ruling, the court determined that a subcommittee of the San Juan County Council that was drafting a land use ordinance hadn’t violated the Open Public Meetings Act by failing to notify the public of its meetings. The court determined that because a quorum of the county council wasn’t present during the meetings, the public did not need to be notified or included. It’s a narrow ruling that ignores explicit language that the act applies to any committee operating on the behalf of a council, board or agency.
A legislative fix for that may have to wait. But there should be no delay for a simple increase of the fine for knowingly evading the public’s interest in a government’s discussions and actions.
Clarification: An earlier version of this editorial referred to an executive session of a house committee. While for most government agencies and boards, “executive sessions” are closed to the public, in the Legislature the term refers only to bills to be voted on. The sessions are open to the public.