When the voters of Washington state approved the Public Disclosure Act more than 30 years ago, they sent a clear message to local and state governments: You work for us, and we need to be able to know what you are doing.
The PDA set in stone what voters expect from their governments—an open and transparent bureaucracy where the goings-on could be monitored by its citizens.
Among the few items that governments have been able to keep under wraps are communications between city attorneys (or non-staff attorneys working for the city) and government officials. Rules put in place by the PDA put tight limitations on what could be construed as attorney-client communications and thus be off-limits to citizen watchdogs, media, or any interested party.
But in 2004, a state Supreme Court decision broadened these definitions, allowing more information to fall under this non-transparent umbrella. What the court decision means is that any government can now claim any correspondence between it and its lawyers as confidential.
The chickens are now guarding their own henhouse, and the watchdog has been locked out of the barnyard.
The city of Bellingham is lobbying state legislators to keep these rules in place. Mayor Mark Asmundson told The Bellingham Herald last month that the city rarely uses this privilege, and has nothing to hide from its citizens.
If this is the case, requesting to keep broadened rules that allow the city to keep information out of the hands of citizens is an odd way of showing it. Using these rules, just about any document that passes through the hands of one of the city’s attorneys would be labeled as privileged — a far cry from what voters wanted when they passed the PDA.
As Bellingham grows and takes on incredible challenges like the New Whatcom waterfront redevelopment project (and the millions of dollars going into it) the city’s residents need to feel confident that the city is engaging in open and ethical governance. Working hard to limit what constitutes open records is not the way to inspire this confidence.
As the city lobbies to keep these broadened rules, you, as city residents, are not powerless; make your opinions known on this issue to both City Hall and to the same state legislators currently being lobbied by the city. The debate over these rules is happening now — get involved in it.
For more information on open and transparent government and its importance, go to www.washingtoncog.org.
by Rik Dalvit