WCOG Announces 2017 Legislative Priorities.

WCOG Announces 2017 Legislative Priorities

By Juli Bunting

Assured access to all governmental meetings – including agency subcommittees – and greater transparency regarding exemptions to Washington’s public records laws are among the priorities of the Washington Coalition for Open Government for the 2017 Legislative Session.

WCOG supports legislation that would require the committees, task forces, or other groups created by and on behalf of government agencies, be subject to the state’s Open Public Meetings Act. Such “subcommittees” often do work that otherwise would be performed by the governing body itself, even if they are not granted decision-making authority and these discussions and deliberations need to include the citizens of Washington.

“If governing body delegates any of its policy duties to a subcommittee, that subcommittee must be open as well,” WCOG President Toby Nixon said. This reflects the spirit of the Open Public Meetings Act.

WCOG also believes it is critical the public knows when lawmakers propose exemptions to the state’s transparency laws. To that end, WCOG supports legislation to stop lawmakers from “hiding” exemptions in bills that have misleading titles.

Ideally, any exemptions to the Public Records Act would be contained or referenced in RCW 42.56, Nixon noted. Although the PRA allows any “other statute” to create an exemption from disclosure, this results in new exemptions being created without any clear notice that the PRA is being amended.

The public is often unaware that certain proposals will weaken the OPMA/PRA because the title of the legislation or measure doesn’t spell out the proposed changes, Nixon explained. This was true of the recently-approved initiative 1501. While it was promoted as a measure to protect seniors from identity theft, the actual intent of the measure was to weaken the OPMA/PRA laws to deny citizens the right to information about public employees.

The Coalition also supports efforts to find alternative dispute resolution mechanisms in cases of alleged OPMA/PRA violations. The laws currently can only be enforced by lawsuits in superior court. That translates to high costs for requestors and agencies and can result in long delays.

“We emphasize that the use of alternative dispute resolution should be acceptable to all parties,” Nixon said. WCOG also contends use of such alternatives must not limit court access.

As always, WCOG will work tirelessly this session to ensure there is no further weakening of the state’s transparency laws. This session, we look forward, as always to working with the public, government agencies, and lawmakers to ensure that Washington state remains a shining example of transparency always.

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