By Attorney General Rob McKenna
Special to The (Vancouver) Columbian for Sunshine Week
Tuesday’s Columbian brought news that the City of Ridgefield would be facing a lawsuit for alleged violations of the Open Public Meetings act. The city is one of five targeted for such suits this week, in honor of National Sunshine Week.
As both Attorney General and as a former King County Council member, I have always believed in the core principle of transparency in government as a means of building trust and demonstrating accountability.
In today’s complicated 24-7, high-tech world, maintaining transparency has become more complicated and time-consuming.
But that’s not a reason to abandon our goals. Rather, it becomes more important than ever to manage our records-tracking systems and to develop new ways to use technology to make government even more transparent.
According to The Columbian, the Ridgefield city council is “accused of twice illegally retreating into closed-door executive sessions in 2006.”
The Ridgefield City Council members are not the only ones facing concerns about improper executive sessions. The state Auditor has noted more than 450 instances over three years where executive sessions were an issue in their audits of local governments. Executive sessions are meetings where government officials meet behind closed doors to discuss highly sensitive issues such as personnel issues, real estate transactions and other issues as allowed under the Open Public Meetings Act.
This session, I joined Auditor Brian Sonntag in requesting legislation that would have required government entities to record executive sessions. Using technology to our advantage, Auditor Sonntag and I recommended capturing the proceedings in executive sessions on a digital audio recorder.
Such a law would provide government decision-makers some protection against claims of improper executive sessions, saving thousands of dollars in legal fees and arguments when disputes arise. A digital auditor recorder with more than 130 hours of storage and software to download the audio to a secure server costs as little as $60 and takes up as much room as a candy bar. Such a small investment could help assure government accountability and provide the public with peace of mind.
While the Legislature chose not to approve this idea this session, I expect Auditor Sonntag and I will pursue this again in the future.
Technology can also reduce the cost of transparency and support sustainability by allowing governments to search and prepare public records electronically. The Attorney General’s office has developed model rules on electronic records and developed new technology to better store and retrieve e-mail.
The electronic model rules help governments reduce the amount of paper documents they print for requestors by giving guidance on providing records electronically. With technology, thousands of pages of documents can be provided in an electronic format that helps reduce the amount of paper used and allows the requestor to more easily search for the information they are seeking.
The Attorney General’s Office has also implemented a new e-mail storage and retrieval system which resulted in national recognition for our IT director in Government Technology. This technology allows the agency to not only search and retrieve e-mail text but documents attached to that e-mail as well.
The recent Sunshine Week poll indicates that more than 90 percent of respondents feel open government is important both at the state and local levels.
Let’s use technology in our favor and increase transparency for those we serve.