Other states value transparent government enough to impose steep fines on government officials who refuse to comply with public disclosure requests.
While the State of Washington's public disclosure laws are adequate, they lack incentives to ensure that public officials comply with the law. Unfortunately, posturing by government officials often prevents citizens and journalists from gaining access to public documents.
The Coalition of Open Government provides resources for citizens who are interested in learning more about Public Disclosure Laws and the Open Public Meetings Act in the State of Washington.
The Coalition tells us that "Sunshine Committee Voters approved the Public Disclosure Act by initiative in 1972. At the time, the act included only 10 exemptions from disclosure. Today, there are at least 300 exemptions (provided by Legislative staff). Attorney General Rob McKenna requested a bill during the 2007 Legislative session to establish a Blue-Ribbon Committee to review all exemptions to the Public Disclosure Act on an annual basis. State Bill 5435 became law on July 22, 2007 creating the Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee. The "Sunshine Committee" will make recommendations to repeal or amend exemptions to the Public Records Act. The committee will be chaired by Thomas Carr, Seattle city attorney."
Newspapers in Education has a wonderful educational piece on Sunshine laws and Sunshine week, please click the link below to go to the site. It was created for use in the classroom, but contains a wealth of information for citizens who would like to learn more about public disclosure laws. http://www.washingtoncog.org/media/images/resources/newspapers_in_education.pdf
A list of additional resources and newspaper articles is located at the bottom of the page.
In honor of Sunshine Week, I am including for your review - excerpts from a letter released by the Washington State Auditor's Office regarding Open Public Meeting Act violations identified in a Washington State Auditor's Audit of State and local governments, boards and commissions. It is a great resource for individuals who are interested in learning more about potential Open Public Meetings Act violations. The complete document can be found here: http://www.washingtoncog.org/media/images/government/Open_Public_Meeting_Violation_List.doc
Washington State Auditor's Office
Open Public Meetings Act
Issues Identified 2004 – 2007
Issues identified during the course of the audit significant enough to be included in the State Auditor's 2004-2007 Audit Report.
Whatcom County Fire Protection District 14
In the previous audit, we issued a finding because the District did not retain public documents as required by law. The documents included minutes of the meetings of the Board of Commissioners and cash receipts. During the audit we determined some 2001 meeting minutes were not signed by the Board and did not indicate who attended Board meetings. Minutes for the 2002 meeting were missing. A resolution adopted in December 2003 was not mentioned in the meeting minutes.
(Issues identified in the audit that aren't significant enough to report as findings, but still warrant attention by the entity and are included in a separate letter to the entity)
Whatcom County Fire Protection District No. 1
We found one bid opening was not documented as occurring during an open public meeting. We also found commissioners had been meeting to talk about personnel issues, but these meetings were not been announced and no minutes were taken.
Whatcom County Water District No. 7
We found no reference in meeting minutes to executive sessions. However, staff stated executive sessions were held.
Skagit County Fire Protection District No. 13
We reviewed the District’s compliance with the Open Public Meetings Act and noted a resolution to increase the tax levy stated discussion regarding the increase took place during a Commission meeting; however the minutes from that meeting do not document that discussion. Discussions regarding purchase price of a piece of equipment were conducted in executive session; however purchase of equipment is not an allowable topic for executive sessions. We also noted two occasions in which the reason for executive session was not documented.
Skagit Valley College
We noted four instances in which the College did not announce the reason for executive sessions at its Board meetings.
Town of Concrete
We noted one instance in which the purpose of an executive session was not announced, four instances in which the reason given was not allowable, one instance in which no expected time to reconvene was given, and one instance in which the Council recessed in order to discuss an ordinance.
Issues identified in the audit communicated to the entity at the exit conference. Exit items typically are one-time occurrences; have been corrected by the end of the audit field work; and/or the tone of entity management’s response indicates the item will be corrected. We follow up in these areas in future audits.
In 281 instances, entities violated the Open Public Meeting Act by not stating or clearly documenting the purpose of executive sessions. The Act requires governing bodies to announce the purpose of executive sessions and to document the specific reason for executive sessions in meeting minutes.
In 168 instances, entities violated the Open Public Meetings Act by not documenting or stating in an open public meeting the expected duration of executive sessions. The Act requires the presiding officer to take both steps before convening an executive session.
In 31 instances, entities violated the Open Public Meetings Act by conducting an executive session for an unallowable purpose. In most cases the specific purpose stated for the executive sessions did not fit any of the purposes allowed by state law.
In eight, instances entities violated the Open Public Meetings act by going into executive session to discuss legal matters without an attorney present. State law requires the District's attorney to be present when public entities discuss potential litigation.
In 12 instances, entities violated the Open Public Meetings Act by conducting executive sessions before open public meetings officially began or outside of open public meetings. The Act requires an open meeting to be convened before an executive session can be convened.
In two instances, entities violated the Open Public Meetings act by taking action without a quorum present.
In nine instances, entities violated the Open Public Meetings act by taking action inside of an executive session. The law states executive sessions are allowed for the purpose of discussing personnel, but that salaries, wages and other conditions of employment generally applied to entity employees must occur in an open public meeting, as well as final action on the hiring and/or salary of an individual employee or class of employees or a decision to discharge an employee.
In eight instances, entities violated the Open Public Meetings act by not properly posting notice to the public for special meetings.
In seven instances entities violated the Open Public Meetings Act by not producing evidence minutes were taken or officially approved.
RCW and WACS - Open Public Meetings Act: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=42.30&full=true
RCW and WACS - Public Records Act:http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=42.56&full=true
Need help accessing public documents? firstname.lastname@example.org
Or, AGO: http://www.atg.wa.gov/Records.aspx
Related Newspaper Articles:
The Olympian - Sunshine makes Government stronger, more accountable: http://www.theolympian.com/opinion/v-print/story/389098.html
The Kitsap Sun - Open Government must be protected: http://www.kitsapsun.com/news/2008/mar/16/editorial-open-government-must-be-protected/
The Spokesman Review - Executive Sessions do not have to go unrecorded: http://www.spokesmanreview.com/tools/story_pf.asp?ID=236143
The Seattle Times - Wistfully celebrating open government: http://blog.seattletimes.nwsource.com/edcetera/2008/03/wistfully_celebrating_open_gov.html
Find out who rates well for government sunshine - The Politics Blog from the Olympian: http://www.theolympian.com/campaigntrail/story/389969.html
The Columbian - Secrecy at Camas- Washougal Port: http://www.columbian.com/opinion/news/2008/03/03122008_In-our-view-Secrecy-at-Camas-Washougal-port.cfm
The Seattle Times - When it comes to Open Government a Sledge Hammer is sorely needed: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/opinion/2004252378_riley03.html
A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both.–James Madison, 1822