Monday, June 2, 2008

Center for Justice launches Statewide Campaign targeting Illegal Secrecy in Government

The Center for Justice, based in Spokane, Washington, is launching a statewide project to enforce Washington's open-government laws.

To ensure that government's are abiding by the Open Meetings Act and other public disclosure laws, the Center for Justice plans to file lawsuits against government entities when officials are suspected of illegally withholding documents or conducting the public's business in secret.

Activists and some members of the media have expressed concern that our state's sunshine laws are not properly enforced -- due in part to numerous legal revisions over the years by the legislature which resulted in weaker sunshine laws; and, the lack of a formal enforcement body to enforce sunshine laws.

Currently, the state relies on private citizens, political organizations and non-profits, like the Center of Justice, Evergreen Freedom Foundation and the Washington Coalition of Governments to file complaints to enforce Public Disclosure laws.

Center for Justice Director Breean Beggs stated that the Center just wants to make sure government is following the law and remaining accountable to its constituents. Public meeting violations have been the first targets, because state law allows anyone to file a complaint in court, even if the plantiff doesn't live in the community where the violation took place.

The Center for Justice has filed lawsuits against 5 local governments accused of violating the Open Meetings Act. To date, the Center has settled three suits with the City of Ridgefield, the Port of Longview and the Yelm Fire District. All three entities made a contribution to a charity as part of their settlement.

The Arlington School District is fighting the Center's suit. the School District is outraged that they had never heard of the Center of Justice before it filed an action against them in court. (I'm not sure why that is relevant - but it was noted in one of the articles I read).

Julie Murray, a policy director for the Washington Association of Counties expressed concern that local governments, especially small counties, lack adequate information about the state's rules for conducting open meetings.

Personally, I wish the Center of Justice every success with this project.

State and federal law provides citizens with an administrative process to file complaints to enforce sunshine laws. Nevertheless, I'm astounded to see how badly individual citizens are treated by government officials and other citizens when they file a complaint to enforce our sunshine laws.

I can only imagine how angry people would be if the same logic was applied to individuals filing appeals with the Growth Management Hearings Board or other state boards charged with the duty of monitoring government compliance with state law.

Beggs tells us, " I think there is an implicit assumption by a lot of people that the government only has to follow the law the majority of the time... if that's all you expected of private citizens, there would be outrage."

Please click the link below to read Curt Woodward's article in the Spokesman Review:

Links for State Organizations that are working to protect open, transparent government.

Center for Justice:

Evergreen Freedom Foundation is also working hard to ensure that all candidates have a level playing field when running for public office.

Public Records Act Recommendations:

Evergreen Freedom Foundation:

Washington Coalition of Open Government:

Sunshine in Government Initiative:

Public Records Act:

Open Public Meetings Act:

Sunshine Committee:

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