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Secrecy spreads as Washington’s landmark transparency law is shredded

A 'pivotal moment' for preserving peoples' right to know

(Graphic by Milt Priggee, courtesy of WashCOG)
By Mike Fancher Guest Writer

The people have a right to know.

That was the idea in 1972 when a citizens’ Coalition for Open Government in Washington state successfully worked for the passage of Initiative 276, a portion of which became the Public Records Act (PRA). It passed overwhelmingly and resulted in laws requiring broad access to public records.

Some 50 years later, the people’s right to access government information is eroding at the state and local levels. Often with good intentions, sometimes with bad intentions, governments have moved toward closure and withholding information that legitimately should be public.

Since 1972, hundreds of exceptions have been made to the general rule that all government records must be open to the public. The number of accumulated exemptions will likely soon exceed 700.

This erosion in openness is why WashCOG formed in 2002 as an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that works through the courts and the Legislature to defend and strengthen Washington’s open government laws.

Open government advocates like WashCOG have won many battles but are losing the war. We believe the situation is as bad as it has been since 1972.

This is a pivotal moment. The erosion of the people’s right to know must be stopped. It is also a moment of opportunity to alert the public and inspire action.

In that spirit, WashCOG is launching the Your Right to Know project, a movement to catalyze the public, media and politicians on behalf of open government. The coalition is also publishing a special report on the status of the PRA, which can be found on our website, washcog.org.

The report is a collection of analytical essays written by members of the WashCOG board of directors. The topics represent problems or “pain points” that we have identified in recent years. From these analyses, we identified a list of findings and recommendations for action.

The Public Records Act should be the bedrock of the people’s right to know. Sadly, it has become a symbol of a broken system at all levels of government.

The Legislature keeps adding exemptions from public disclosure while finding new ways to withhold its own records. Requesters are waiting longer for agencies to disclose records. Requesters rarely sue, and what agencies spend on records requests is a tiny piece of their total outlays. Nonetheless, critics often portray the PRA as the source of burdensome expenses and lawsuits.

Data compiled by the government show:

  • Requesters wait longer for “final disposition” of their records requests. In 2019, they waited an average of 15 days. In 2022, it was nearly 23 days.
  • Agencies’ performance varies widely. Requesters who sought records from the city of Seattle in 2022 on average waited more than twice as long as their counterparts in the city of Tacoma.
  • Between 2018 and 2022, an average of 0.03% of records requests resulted in the requester suing the agency. Yet legislators have considered proposals to rein in “excessive” records lawsuits to the detriment of all requesters.

The Your Right to Know project will include increased WashCOG engagement in high schools, colleges, educational organizations, civic groups and the media — anywhere there are opportunities to spread the word about the importance of open government in a democracy.

We will also work collaboratively with the many public agencies and officials who strive for openness, despite inadequate funding and training. We are committed to helping them make Washington a model for the nation when it comes to transparency and accountability.

Our special report on the PRA concludes with a call to action to the public: You have a right to know, and it’s time for you to be heard.

Mike Fancher has been president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government since January 2021. He joined the coalition board in 2006 and previously served as vice president and board chair. Fancher retired from The Seattle Times in 2008, after 20 years as executive editor. WashCOG is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that was established in 2002 as a public advocate for open government. 

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