Bridging the Red-Blue Divide

Story by Aimee Edmondson, Missouri School of Journalism

In Washington State, the push for open government is coming from both sides of the aisle. And some public officials from both parties support cutting down on the increasing number of exemptions finding their way on the books. Across the political spectrum, this includes Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna and Democratic State Auditor Brian Sonntag.

Similarly, the Washington Coalition for Open Government board of directors includes representatives from conservative and liberal groups, along with members of the media.

McKenna recently led a successful effort to get the legislature to establish a Sunshine Committee, which under statute will review more than 300 exemptions added to the Washington state records act since the original statute was created. That committee will make recommendations to the legislature and will be a reference group lawmakers can turn to for information on the issue.

“Threat to open public records is constant,” said McKenna, who is considered a champion of FOIA by the Washington state media and other open records advocates.

McKenna said FOIA isn’t broken up by party lines so much as by special interests. In just one example, labor unions have asked to exempt their notes from bargaining sessions.

“They’ll say, how about just a little exemption, just for this bill,” McKenna said.

He is also wary of increasing calls for date-of-birth exemptions. Most proponents of openness point to rising identity theft concerns as the reasoning behind the need for more secrecy. This is an unnecessary exemption, McKenna said, pointing out that date-of-birth information is already in the public domain, available on the internet. And studies on identify theft don’t show the openness of date-of-birth records as a contributor.

“(No study) that I’m aware of has pointed to public records as a source of identity theft. I haven’t seen any examples in our state,” McKenna said.

Sonntag agreed.

“You are talking about a cure before there is a disease,” he said.

Sonntag’s office audits about 2,700 government agencies in the state.

Common sense steps such as redacting social security numbers are the best way to deal with identity theft, McKenna said. Members of this panel also gave advice to conference attendees from other states on ways to make this issue less about red and blue.

“If you can convince your legislators that this isn’t a liberal-only issue…it’s been very helpful to show the broad nature of our coalition,” said Toby Nixon, a former member of the Washington State House of Representatives.

To convert people, Nixon said, show how strong open records laws can help them with issues they are interested in. Also, point out that a party’s power can change in the next election, and officials who may want to close records during one administration may see the importance of being able to have access to public information when they are on the outside.