Posts Tagged ‘Sunshine Week’


Washington’s governor needs to use veto pen to make stand for transparency

As Yogi Berra would say, it’s déjà vu all over again.

A legislature has rushed through a bill curtailing the state’s public records act, waiving rules to minimize public comment and present the governor with a bill that has enough votes to override any veto, and members of the public are as mad as hell.

While that sounds like Utah’s infamous House Bill 477, which gutted the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act, this scenario actually played out in Washington state last week.

In response to a Thurston County Superior Court judge’s ruling that lawmakers are subject to the state’s Public Records Act, Senate Bill 6617 was introduced to nullify it.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, the bill declares that the Legislature is not subject to the public records law.

While the bill does make some records public, such as lawmakers’ calendars and final actions in disciplinary procedures, it takes giant leaps backwards in transparency.

The bill renders the court battle over lawmakers’ records moot because it is retroactive back to 1889 when Washington became a state.

But wait, that’s not all.

If someone challenges a record denial by either the Senate Secretary or the Clerk of the House, the appeal can only be heard by one of two legislative committees, and the committee’s ruling is final and cannot be challenged in court.

The bill takes effect as soon as it becomes law. That negates any attempt to overturn it at the ballot box.

If you think the bill is bad, the way it was passed in the Legislature was worse.

The bill was introduced late in the session, on Feb, 21, and was put up for a Senate vote without going through the usual committee process.

Lawmakers did agree to have a “work session” where stakeholders such as the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington could weigh in against the bill, but that was not enough to stop this legislative juggernaut.

The bill passed 41-7 in the Senate on Feb. 23, and minutes later the House of Representatives voted 83-14 in favor of it.

Lawmakers defended the bill with pleas that they were protecting their constituents from having their tales of personal woes and problems exposed by prying reporters who request lawmakers email and correspondence.

Another argument that was brought up was that responding to public records requests would be too onerous for lawmakers and their support staff.

Plus, they argued that the state’s judicial branch is exempt from the Public Records Act, so why shouldn’t they.

But as Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, and Allied Daily Newspapers’ Executive Director Rowland Thompson point out, the judiciary’s exemption was worked out over a course of years, with open-government advocates at the table. And the system they came up with provides an independent review of any record denial.

The bill is now before Gov. Jay Inslee, who has until Thursday to either sign the bill, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

And Inslee’s getting a lot of calls to veto the bill. The Seattle Times reviewed more than 540 constituent emails it requested from Inslee’s office, and found that there were none in support of the bill. And several papers in the state, including the Times, the Yakima Herald-Republic, the Bellingham Herald and others, ran front-page editorials demanding Inslee veto the bill.

While Inslee is supportive of transparency in government, he has hinted that vetoing a bill supported by a veto-proof majority, would be futile.

No, it wouldn’t. It could stop this bill in its tracks, or at least make legislators take full responsibility for thumbing their noses at the public’s right to know.

Sure, the bill’s got more than enough votes to overturn a veto, but when the moment of truth comes, some lawmakers may question the justice of their cause when faced with overriding a veto that the public fully supports in an election year. Politicians know better than most people that discretion is the better part of valor.

And even if lawmakers stick to their guns and override the veto, Inslee will have shown the people that he values transparency, even when it is not convenient. And by doing so, he would force the Legislature to take full ownership of the bill. They were the ones who approved it, and they were the ones who made it become law, even though the public made it perfectly clear that they value transparency, just as they did when they enacted the Public Records Act through a referendum in the 1970s.

Donald W. Meyers, a reporter/multimedia journalist at the Yakima (Wash.) Herald-Republic, is a member of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee and is SPJ’s Region 10 Director

Nominate worst agency for new Black Hole Award! (due Feb. 28)

The Society of Professional Journalists is soliciting nominations for a new award this year, the Black Hole Award, which will be awarded during national Sunshine Week in March. Nominations are due Feb. 28!

The Black Hole serves as the counterpoint to the SPJ  Sunshine Award, highlighting a particularly heinous violation of the public’s right to know. By exposing the bad actors, we hope to educate members of the public to their rights and call attention to those who would interfere with the people’s right to acquire government information so that they may hold their elected officials accountable and enhance self-governance.

(Note that this new nationally focused effort was inspired by the Utah Headliners, SPJ’s state chapter, which has been giving out its own state Black Hole Award for quite some time.)

Here are the conditions nomination should meet:

1. Violation, in spirit or letter, of any federal or state open-government law. This would mean either a clear violation of the statute governing access to public records or public meetings, or using an ambiguity or loophole in the law to avoid having to comply with the law. For example, conducting multiple meetings with small groups that do not constitute a quorum, e-mail discussions outside the public view, or charging unreasonable amounts to copy documents.

2. Egregiousness. In order to maintain the effectiveness of the Black Hole award, it should not be given for just any openness violation. There needs to be a demonstration that this was not an isolated incident or done in relative ignorance. Recipients should know they are trampling on the public’s right, placing personal or political interests ahead of the public good or endangering public welfare. Examples might include an agency or official who attempted to keep information secret to avoid embarrassment or hide misdeeds.

3. Impact. The case should be one that affects the public rather than an individual. We want to avoid using the award to settle vendettas against recalcitrant bureaucrats. Essentially we want to see a case where their withholding the information hurt the general public rather than an individual, or its release would further public welfare.

The SPJ Freedom of Information Committee is doing this with a really tight deadline this year, hoping we can announce the “winner” during Sunshine Week. We would appreciate it you would send us information about any “outstanding” candidates you are aware of.

Deadline for nominations is Monday, Feb. 28. If possible, nominations should include, where possible, supporting documentation to allow SPJ to determine if the criteria have been met. The documentation can include any of the following, although the more documentation the better:

• News coverage of the violation.

• Public records chronicling the dispute.

• Legal papers if there was a lawsuit or other legal action involved in the matter.

• Any expert opinion from an attorney, official or open-government expert that the violation occurred.

• Contact information for the parties involved to allow the committee to obtain more information if needed, including from the government official.

Please email nominations to SPJ FOI Committee member Mike Farrell, farrell@uky.edu,

UPDATE [2/23/11]: This post was corrected to reflect that the SPJ Sunshine Award is not given out during national Sunshine Week. The due date for that award is March 18. It will be presented at an awards banquet at the Excellence in Journalism 2011 conference.

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