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Originally published October 22, 2009 at 4:18 PM | Page modified October 24, 2009 at 4:49 PM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

A few bright spots on Washington state's open-government horizon

Open-government principals have taken a beating in Washington state recently. But there are a few bright spots on the horizon, including King County's new public-disclosure reforms and an effort between the state auditor and attorney general to push for a commission to help citizens.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Open-government advocates have had a tough few years in Washington state.

State Supreme Court rulings — though split — have favored local governments keeping their secrets from citizens; one even said government agencies have the right to sue people who request information. That certainly can put a damper on a family budget.

Now the U.S. Supreme Court is getting into the act — literally, the state Public Disclosure Act — by blocking the release of signatures of people who signed Referendum 71. The referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot was backed by social conservatives hoping to kill the new state law expanding domestic-partnership rights. Some opponents of the effort sought the signatures to publicize them on the Web, and Protect Marriage Washington is arguing that initiative signers have a right to privacy.

So, the high court ruled 8-1 to block the signatures' release while it considers whether to take an appeal of a lower-court ruling — a process that could take up to a year. Meanwhile, a judge in Thurston County, considering a similar case, ruled no signatures on any ballot measures should be released until the federal case is settled.

Such an approach, especially the delay, is anathema to the principles of the state's Public Disclosure Act, enacted by 72 percent of voters by initiative in 1973. It states: "The provisions of this act are to be liberally construed to effectuate the policies and purposes of this act."

Names of voters are public information. A voter signing a referendum or initiative is not a confidential process. If I were signing an initiative, I could whip out my phone and take a picture of the signatures and contact information of all who signed before me. The signature gatherer could leave petitions on the bus or in an unlocked car. There is no security and no reasonable expectation of privacy.

The Supreme Court's involvement is only the latest disappointing blotch on Washington's open-government landscape, but there are some bright spots on the horizon, both at the state and local level.

Last session, the state Legislature failed to act on a smart idea to create some kind of an open-government commission so that individuals whose requests are denied can make their case to an independent body without the expense and trouble of going to court. The bill would have created a task force to look at the idea

But state Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, and Auditor Brian Sonntag, a Democrat, feel so strongly about ensuring citizens have better access, they moved ahead with their own strapped resources. A task force they convened will be considering a final recommendation to the Legislature next month.

Now that's leadership in the face of the Legislature's general indolence on open-government issues.

In King County, council members Bob Ferguson, a Democrat, and Reagan Dunn, a Republican, collaborated on an ordinance to reform the county's public-disclosure process out of frustration over the county's ham-handed handling of two requests. The county recently paid $225,000 to settle one case because of delays in releasing documents relating to the 2004 election. The other case about documents relating to public financing of Qwest Field is still pending and could cost the county as much as $800,000.

Ferguson said the policies will ensure requests make it to the right agency, are answered in a timely manner and annual reports to the council will add accountability.

The council unanimously approved the ordinance two weeks ago. That's impressive. Usually, local governments with lobbyists paid by public funds tend to fight hard any legislative effort to open government up, whether its more tightly defining when agencies can cite attorney-client privilege or requiring that their closed executive sessions be taped for accountability's sake.

King County's move is smart, but more needs to be done. The Legislature should consider enacting the recommendations of the McKenna/Sonntag task force so citizens can challenge records denials in a more affordable way.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com

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