by Walter Neary
State Sen. Joe Fain of Auburn will be honored Monday evening with the highest legislative award the Washington Coalition for Open Government can bestow. The award celebrates your right to know what government is doing or thinking of doing.
Every year WashCOG selects a state lawmaker dedicated to open government who has worked to strengthen, improve, or protect the state’s Public Records Act and honors them with the Ballard/Thompson Award. The award is named in honor of Clyde Ballard, former Republican speaker of the House, and Alan Thompson, former chief clerk of the House, Democratic representative and senator; both are founding members of WashCOG.
The founders represent something very important about the need and drive to keep government open. They are people who passionately believe that you as a citizen have a right to know about your government. WashCOG has members from across political, philosophic and other spectrums, all united by a common value: that government should be open and transparent to its constituents. If you’re interested in this right, please consider visiting the Washington Coalition for Open Government’s website to learn more.
This brings us to Sen. Fain and last year’s legislative session. The (Republican) senator was a tireless advocate for Engrossed Senate Bill 5964. The law requires that certain public officials receive training every four years on records retention and disclosure and on open public meetings.
One of the biggest issues we have in Washington is actually not what you might think – the stereotypical picture of a public official who’s deliberately trying to circumvent the public records and meetings laws (though sadly, those people are out there). I’d argue, based on what I saw as eight years as a city councilman in Lakewood, that our biggest problem is ignorance. Public officials simply don’t know how transparent their records and actions have to be.
I’ll give you one example. I had been on my council six years when I was talking to someone who had been elected to the city council of a major city. I was describing the budget process. And what the individual said to me was, “Oh, we can work out our differences about the budget before the public knows anything about it, don’t we?”
Um, actually, no.
The great thing about ESB 5964 and Sen. Fain’s work is that mandatory training will educate people like this lawmaker about the law. And if you’re a smidge cynical, like me, you also realize the training will remove a common excuse for failure to follow the law, ignorance. That said, almost all public officials want to comply with the rules – once they know them. Once I educated the person I was speaking with, the individual expressed gratitude and said of course they’d comply with the law. .