EDITORIAL | Greater transparency please, it’s our right

Today, millions of Americans will hold true to the annual tradition of making, and in many cases breaking, New Year’s resolutions.

Government should not be excluded from this favorite pastime. It does many things well, and Island County is fortunate to have many excellent public servants and elected officials. But no one person or agency is perfect, and this year The Record would like to see strides for improvement in the often foggy realm of transparency.

Surely some government officials are reading this and beginning to mumble something like, “Oh boy, here we go again,” but this is not a tired topic no matter what good practices or safeguards are currently in place.

The need and relevance of transparency is not a matter of opinion, it’s state law.

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.” — Washington’s Public Records Act.

Along with the Open Public Meetings Act, this state is armed with progressive and demanding sunshine laws. It should be noted that many of the tenets of these laws are complex, challenging to accommodate and in some cases less than clear.

Public agencies, big and small, must meet the same requirements and public abuse exists. In recent years, some Whidbey government officials have complained about records requests that are so large that they take months to compile and cost many thousands of dollars.

At the same time, however, government isn’t always so great at supplying even the simplest of information. A recent public records request made by The Record for county arrest logs — one of the more common requests of newspapers — took more than two weeks to fulfill due to limitations of county computer software.

Also, protections for government are, on occasion, abused by public officials. For example, draft documents are exempt from public disclosure, and elected bodies are permitted to have secret meetings when discussing issues such as pending litigation, real estate sales or purchases and for some personnel matters. These exemptions exist for the public’s protection but they are often taken advantage of for the sake of personal, or rather political, convenience.

So there are problems on both sides; sometimes the public asks too much and other times government is dragging its heels. But overcoming such trials is not the public’s burden to bear.

Government exists to serve us — the people. We are the master, not the other way around, and if officials find themselves feeling otherwise, it’s time to seek a new profession.

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