Taking your government for a stroll in the dark

The low turnout of government officials (and candidates) for the recent free program on open government in Washington came as no surprise.

Lip service to transparency in government is rarely matched by legislative effort by either the old-timers or the new young guns.

Open government is becoming just one more promise on the election trail that is abruptly forgotten once the ballots are counted.

Then everything is back to normal in Olympia, with senators and representatives voting on bills in near secrecy.

This year, the Legislature raised the manipulation of loopholes to avoid public scrutiny to an art form. Some favorite techniques included title-only bills, which hide the true intent of proposed legislation, and scheduling hearings on short notice, which prevents public participation.

As the Seattle Times noted shortly after the close of this year's legislative session:

"An example of rushed hearings is Senate Bill 6143 offered by Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton. This was the most important bill of the session. It was 112 pages long and contained more than $800 million in tax increases. After dithering on the issue for weeks, the Legislature disclosed this bill, held a hearing on it and passed it in one day -- a Saturday."

So much for the people's Legislature.

The few dozen citizens who did show up for the open government program in Kennewick this month learned that 10 exemptions to Washington's open government law were included when it was written in 1972.

"Now," said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, "there are over 300 exemptions."

He says, "It becomes increasingly difficult to get access to records. Every year, dozens more exemptions are proposed."

Ignorance? Hardly.

The trouble with Washington's laws on open government isn't just the continual chipping away at the standards, it's also the feeble fines that are assessed on those rare instances when elected officials are made to pay up.

The preamble to Washington's open government law has been repeated here many, many times over the years.

Faced with such a wall of indifference in Olympia and in many local governments, it's worth the space (and your time) to run it again:

"The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve 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. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created."

Although individual payments may be ridiculously low, some agencies may find themselves in deep trouble.

Mesa, for example.

Not long ago that city was ordered to pay nearly $250,000 in fines -- nearly its entire annual budget -- because it did not follow the state's open records law.

The Benton Clean Air Authority reached a $30,000 settlement over a disputed public records request. Prosser paid the same citizen $175,000 over a similar matter.

Whether the money comes out of the general fund or an insurance policy, taxpayers are hurt worse than the violators.

Members of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, sponsors of the recent presentation here, screen every bill the Legislature considers, then alert lawmakers and the public to more exemptions embedded in legislation.

It's an endless job, especially when legislators vote on bills they haven't read.

We're grateful to the coalition for its efforts.

We just wish individual legislators would stop making the job so hard for them.