Tuesday, January 8, 2008

McKenna requests legislation for Public Meetings Act

A Washington State public audit of local public agencies found dozens of government employees who violated state law by witholding documents that the law says they must release.The audit was the first of it's kind to examine Washington's Public Records Act, which defines a public record as any document prepared, owned, used or kept by a state or local agency. These records are presumed to be public, unless specifically exmpted from public disclosure by law.In 1972, the Washington State Legislature declared, "Government isn't a secret business or club." It belongs to the citizens, and the public has every right to access records and participate in government proceedings. A national study of Open Meetings Act compliance awarded the State of Washington an "F" for compliance.

On January 4th, citing that there is a general lack of consistency in how governments comply with Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna announced that he intends to request legislation that will direct the Attorney General’s Office to develop advisory model rules for the OPMA to clarify: Agencies subject to the OPMA; meetings and actions that should be conducted openly; Notice requirements for meetings; Matters that may be conducted in closed sessions; any other issues pertaining to the Open Public Meetings Act.

Public notice will be achieved by requiring an agency to: post a notice of the special meeting on the agency’s web site; Post in an open area to the public at the agencies main office; deliver written notice to each local newspaper of general circulation; and, deliver a notice to each local radio or television station only if the station has a request of file with the agency.

In response to State Auditor Brian Sonntag’s 400 incidents of concern discovered during agency performance audits, McKenna is requesting taping legislation that would let judges review conversations from government executive sessions and determine if officials are abusing the law that protects some legal, real estate and other discussions from public disclosure.

The following principles govern the Open Meetings Act. 1) People do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. 2) People do not give public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. 3) People remain informed so they may retain control over the instruments they have created.

Details of the OPMA statute: Any action taken at meetings failing to comply with the Open Public Meetings Act is null and void. RCW 42.30.060. See Clark v. City of Lakewood, 259 F.3d 996 (9th Cir. 2001). Any person may commence an action either by mandamus or injunction to stop violations or prevent threatened violations of the Open Public Meetings Act. RCW 42.30.130. Individual members of the governing body who attend a meeting in violation of the Open Public Meetings Act with knowledge of the fact that the meeting is in violation of the OPMA are subject to personal liability in the amount of a $100 civil penalty. RCW 42.30.120(1) Any person who prevails against a public agency for violation of the Open Public Meetings Act shall be awarded all costs, including reasonable attorneys' fees, incurred in connection with such legal action. RCW 42.30.120(2).

For more information about the Attorney General, please visit: http://www.atg.wa.gov/

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