– James Madison, 1822. (Quote taken from the Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna's website).
In regards to recent questions about the City of Bellingham’s commitment to upholding and protecting the public’s right to participate in government’s decisions. I find myself shaking my head and wondering - is it even remotely possible for City officials to reconcile the inherent, built-in conflict between the practical realities of politics, personal ambition, campaign paybacks and the democratic ideal of selfless public service?
Why do I ask? A local resident, Wendy Harris, recently submitted both written and verbal testimony regarding the City’s lack of compliance with the state-mandated SEPA DNS review process. She asserts that the City is required to withdraw the reissued DNS and send all four Agenda Bills 017849, 017850, 017851, and 017852 back to the Planning Commission.
It's been several days now, and Ms. Harris has not received so much as the courtesy of a phone call regarding her concerns about the SEPA DNS review process. Not from her City Councilor, not from the Mayor's office, not even from Tim Stewart.
Public office is a public trust - and "accountability" is the essence of public trust.
Laws and rules are appropriate when they concern the use of tax dollars, publicly owned property, facilities, and influence. Laws are needed to establish the minimum norms of behavior, clarify the responsibilty of government officials and staff, and to prevent abuse of public office.
Upholding the rules for public meetings isn’t an arbitrary decision. In fact, there is no surer way to guarantee a front page scandal than violations of the law, even technical ones. Thus, our elected officials and staff must not only understand public meeting rules and laws, they are required to enforce them.
Hypocrisy or inconsistency in applying the rules, even on small matters; can destroy the public’s trust and impede a public official’s ability to exercise leadership in the future.
It is imperative that elected officials understand the roles of their respective offices and their responsibility to respond openly and honestly to inquiries from members of the public. The City may not agree with Ms. Harris's position on the SEPA DNS, but refusing to even politely acknowledge her concerns about process/procedure is contemptible.
There are city and state laws that legally define a council member and mayor’s role; the role of the public and the rules for how public meetings are conducted.
Trust is a precious commodity in public service. Once lost, it's nearly impossible to regain. If the Council continues to ignore state and local meeting rules, then regular citizens like Mr. Harris might as well stay at home.
The personal rewards for public service can be tremendous - not monetarily - but by being able to contribute to the betterment of the community by having the opportunity to meet and work with many diverse, talented and dedicated individuals.
Public officials and staff should affirm the dignity and worth of the services provided by government and try to maintain a constructive, non-judgmental and practical attitude toward constituents and local issues.
Nor have I received a response to my request for information regarding the City's appeals process. (So much for peace of mind, accountability and transparency).
Fortunately, Attorney General Rob McKenna is working very hard to ensure that local governments understand and comply with laws and rules that govern public meetings. I'm including copies of two recent press releases, for readers to review.
Attorney General's Press Release(s) are attached:
OPINION: Government can be complicated, sunshine shouldn’t be
By Attorney General Rob McKenna
Special to The (Vancouver) Columbian for Sunshine Week
Tuesday’s Columbian brought news that the City of Ridgefield would be facing a lawsuit for alleged violations of the Open Public Meetings act. The city is one of five targeted for such suits this week, in honor of National Sunshine Week.
As both Attorney General and as a former King County Council member, I have always believed in the core principle of transparency in government as a means of building trust and demonstrating accountability.
In today’s complicated 24-7, high-tech world, maintaining transparency has become more complicated and time-consuming.
But that’s not a reason to abandon our goals. Rather, it becomes more important than ever to manage our records-tracking systems and to develop new ways to use technology to make government even more transparent.
According to The Columbian, the Ridgefield city council is “accused of twice illegally retreating into closed-door executive sessions in 2006.”
The Ridgefield City Council members are not the only ones facing concerns about improper executive sessions. The state Auditor has noted more than 450 instances over three years where executive sessions were an issue in their audits of local governments. Executive sessions are meetings where government officials meet behind closed doors to discuss highly sensitive issues such as personnel issues, real estate transactions and other issues as allowed under the Open Public Meetings Act.
This session, I joined Auditor Brian Sonntag in requesting legislation that would have required government entities to record executive sessions. Using technology to our advantage, Auditor Sonntag and I recommended capturing the proceedings in executive sessions on a digital audio recorder.
Such a law would provide government decision-makers some protection against claims of improper executive sessions, saving thousands of dollars in legal fees and arguments when disputes arise. A digital auditor recorder with more than 130 hours of storage and software to download the audio to a secure server costs as little as $60 and takes up as much room as a candy bar. Such a small investment could help assure government accountability and provide the public with peace of mind.
While the Legislature chose not to approve this idea this session, I expect Auditor Sonntag and I will pursue this again in the future.
Technology can also reduce the cost of transparency and support sustainability by allowing governments to search and prepare public records electronically. The Attorney General’s office has developed model rules on electronic records and developed new technology to better store and retrieve e-mail.
The electronic model rules help governments reduce the amount of paper documents they print for requestors by giving guidance on providing records electronically. With technology, thousands of pages of documents can be provided in an electronic format that helps reduce the amount of paper used and allows the requestor to more easily search for the information they are seeking.
The Attorney General’s Office has also implemented a new e-mail storage and retrieval system which resulted in national recognition for our IT director in Government Technology. This technology allows the agency to not only search and retrieve e-mail text but documents attached to that e-mail as well.
The recent Sunshine Week poll indicates that more than 90 percent of respondents feel open government is important both at the state and local levels. Let’s use technology in our favor and increase transparency for those we serve.
Attorney General Press Release:
OPINION: Wins and losses in the battle for transparency
By Attorney General Rob McKenna
Special to the Yakima Herald-Republic for National Sunshine Week
A recent National Sunshine Week poll indicates that more than 90 percent of respondents feel open government is important both at the state and local levels.
The question is how do our state and local government officials feel? Based on the outcome of the most recent legislative session, the answer is mixed.
Led by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Sunshine Week runs March 16 through 22. An annual event, Sunshine Week emphasizes the public’s right to know what government is doing, and why.
As both Attorney General and a former King County Council member, I have always believed in the core principle of transparency in government as a means of building trust and demonstrating accountability.
Advancements in technology are providing more tools to help us achieve greater government transparency, but these tools need the support of government officials if they are to be truly effective.
This session, I was proud to support a new budget transparency measure requested by the Washington Policy Center and approved during the recent Legislative session. Senate Bill 6818, supported by every member of the Yakima legislative delegation, directs the state Office of Financial Management to develop a searchable Web site to help the public identify how the state is spending their money. Citizens need to be informed about the cost of government and where their tax dollars are being spent.
Now awaiting the governor’s signature, this bill will help the public quantify the priorities they have for government and better understand the choices government makes when revenues are tight. Score one point for open government.
As the Yakima Herald-Republic has reported, I also joined Auditor Brian Sonntag in requesting legislation (HB 3292) that would have required government entities to record executive sessions. Emphasizing technology once again, Auditor Sonntag and I recommended using a digital audio recorder to capture the proceedings in executive sessions. Those are meetings where government officials meet behind closed doors to discuss highly sensitive issues such as personnel issues, real estate transactions and other issues as allowed under the Open Public Meetings Act.
The state Auditor has noted more than 450 instances in just three years where executive sessions were an issue in their audits of local governments. The law is clear that officials must state why they are calling an executive session, and limit its duration to a fixed period, to help assure transparency.
A digital auditor recorder with more than 130 hours of storage and software to download the audio to a secure server costs as little as $60 and takes up as much room as a candy bar. Such a small investment could help assure government accountability and provide the public with peace of mind. At the same time, such a law would provide government decision-makers some protection against claims of improper executive sessions, saving thousands of dollars in legal fees and arguments when disputes arise.
Despite strong support from editorial boards like the Yakima Herald-Republic and by your local legislators, this bill did not pass. That’s one point against open government. I expect Auditor Sonntag and I will continue to pursue it in the future.
Wins and losses in the field of open government should be carefully tallied. Every citizen should know where their elected leaders stand on these issues and should urge them to support transparency at every opportunity.
That is the spirit of Sunshine Week.
AG Editorial: http://www.atg.wa.gov/pressrelease.aspx?id=19386