Legislators seek to protect open government law

While the case is pending at the U.S. Supreme Court whether to make public the names of Washington citizens signing initiatives to state government, some legislators take "open government" seriously and are doing something about it.

Led by state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, backers say a bill will be introduced this session to make those signatures a part of the public record.

That's not just good, it's great.

The problem came up before the last election, the one in which Referendum 71 -- in which a "no" vote would have denied the Legislature's extension of certain rights to gay and elderly domestic partners -- instead passed by 53 percent.

Those who tried to get the domestic partnership law overturned mounted a successful signature drive to put the issue on the ballot. But they balked at the idea that signing a petition to the government, with signatures gathered at public places, came under the open government law.

The referendum's backers, Protect Marriage Washington, went to court to prevent Secretary of State Sam Reed from disclosing the names of the signers of the petitions. Such names had been routinely made public in the past.

"Invasion of privacy," cried the petitioners, "abridgment of our First Amendment right to free speech."

"Baloney," answered those who believe that the government is best that is most open to its citizens.

The petitioners sued and found sympathy in U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle, a Washington resident but apparently no fan of open government.

He ruled that the signatures should be kept from the public.

At this time, he said, "the court is not persuaded that full public disclosure of referendum petitions is necessary."

The 9th District Court of Appeals overturned his ruling.

Another appeal was filed, and this time the U.S. Supreme Court is deciding whether to hear the case.

Until the august nine make up their minds whether the case is worthy of them, Washington's open records law is stifled where petition signatures are concerned.

Rep. Carlyle and others now propose that it be written explicitly into law that petitions to government are public documents, including the signatures attached to them.

"Initiatives and referendum are part of the soul of our state's history from the progressive era of the 1880s, and this bill is an effort to make it clear that the public deserves full, open and transparent access to petitions," Carlyle said. "Signing a petition is your fundamental constitutional right, and with that right comes a public responsibility to ensure our state provides open access to that information."

Reed agrees.

"We're pleased to support Rep. Carlyle's legislation to make it clear that initiative and referendum petitions are releasable public records," said Reed, a Republican. "It has been our consistent policy during my administration that Washington voters meant what they said in adopting the Public Records Act by a landslide vote in 1972, that our government must conduct our public activities with great transparency and openness."

That law makes good sense.

After all, the Secretary of State's Office has to run sample checks of every petition filed to make sure there are enough valid signatures. If there are not, the petitioners failed.

So if government is checking the signatures, it seems obvious that the names ought to be made public. Validating initiatives is exactly the sort of government activity the public wants the right to oversee.

The Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, was passed to prevent government from censoring speech, not to keep citizens from knowing what was said.

Let's hope this bill gets heard and passed in a hurry.

The citizens of Washington grow restless and impatient when their government seems to be slipping behind a veil of secrecy.

This measure, if it becomes law, will give them the reassurance that the courts have so far failed to do.