Washington Government Transparency
5:38 am
Mon March 19, 2012

Washington Scores Well On Transparency, But Up To Citizens To Verify

OLYMPIA -- Washington’s Public Records Act and other transparency measures have earned the state a high score in a nationwide study. The State Integrity Investigation looked at every state’s disclosure practices. It ranked Washington third in the country, with a letter grade of "B-."

But budget cuts are curtailing investigations by government watchdogs. And all three branches of government have tried to put more of their records outside the law’s scrutiny. KUOW’s Amy Radil reports.

The State Integrity Investigation took 18 months and $1.5 million to complete. The nonprofits the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International evaluated the “risk of corruption” in all 50 states, based on rules around campaign finance disclosure, ethics, procurement policies and every other measure of government openness.

Nathaniel Heller, the executive director of Global Integrity, says they discovered that lots of states have great laws in place. "They’re just simply underfunded, understaffed, and there’s just a huge gap when it comes to better enforcement," Heller says.

Each state received a grade and a ranking. While no state received an “A,” the top state in the country is ... New Jersey. Yes, New Jersey, and the state’s reputation as a hotbed for corruption is actually the reason it’s so squeaky clean now.

“When you see prosecutions and perp walks and scandals and resignations, we tend to think things are really broken," Heller says. "And what we’ve learned over the years is oftentimes that’s a really good sign that things are working.”

Washington state was close behind New Jersey -– the state is ranked third, with a grade of B-. It was the strongest in the region on government transparency. Oregon ranked 14th, and Idaho was 40th.

One of the reasons Washington scored so well was the fact that the state has an independent auditor, Brian Sonntag. He says the New Jersey phenomenon has been repeated here on a smaller scale -– an audit can help transform a troubled agency into a model one.

“When we, a few years ago, did a performance audit at the Port of Seattle, it was pretty contentious, we had dozens of findings," Sonntag says. "But you fast-forward and they’ve implemented virtually all the recommendations we made. They even tape record their executive sessions.”

Recording those sessions is not currently required by law, although many open government advocates think it should be. In 2005 voters passed an initiative strengthening Sonntag’s powers. The measure gave him dedicated funding to broaden his audits of government agencies.

But the budget crisis has still diminished what his office can do, since legislators have directed those funds elsewhere.

“Last year for example they took $5 million of our performance audit budget and put it in Department of Social and Health Services,” Sonntag says.

The state’s Public Disclosure Commission has also lost investigators. In 2010 all the formal complaints submitted to the agency were investigated within 90 days. Executive director Andrea McNamara Doyle says they can’t meet those deadlines now.

“Despite all of our efforts to be as efficient as we can, I think there’s no way around the fact that with reduced resources things will take longer,” she says.

One of Washington’s lowest scores in the study involved its failure to audit financial disclosure forms. Those forms are submitted to the PDC by people elected or appointed to public office. They describe each person’s occupation, clients, and financial assets and those of their spouse.

Doyle says the PDC makes sure that everyone who is supposed to file does so, but the information on the forms isn’t verified. It mostly relies on the honor system.

“Once that information is filed with us, it’s available for anybody who has questions or concerns about the data to look that over themselves," Doyle says.

Those forms aren’t available online the way other PDC filings are. You have to request them from the agency. PDC staff can usually supply the forms that same day. But you can’t do a search on the documents.

Such as to find out how many elected officials own a certain kind of stock or work for a certain company. To do that would require putting the forms into your own database.

That’s what reporter Angela Galloway did for a project in 2003 when she worked for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

“It took a long time to get them," Galloway says. "And the PDC is cooperative, but these were treated different from all the other forms the PDC was processing as I understood it, specifically to protect the privacy of legislators.”

In that single year, Galloway found that more than a quarter of legislators sponsored or supported bills that helped the business or investment interests of their own families. There was no recusal policy for skipping a vote to avoid conflicts of interest. And she found that Washington, unlike some other states, allows legislators to hold other government jobs at the same time.

All three branches of government in Washington have pushed back against the Public Records Act since it passed. The judiciary has claimed that it falls outside the act, and has resisted allowing Sonntag to do performance audits.

Legislators have enacted over 300 exemptions to the act, allowing agencies 300 reasons to deny public information requests. And Governor Gregoire has claimed executive privilege to avoid releasing certain records; that case is currently before the state Supreme Court.

Galloway says these disputes are in contrast to Washington’s proud tradition of government transparency. She says they need to do more to maintain that openness.

“I think the benefit of that would be a sense of confidence and when people are confident in their government they buy into it and they get involved, and I just think that would be healthy for all sides,” Galloway says.

Citizens bear a big responsibility as Washington’s ultimate watchdogs. The process of verifying information, and filing complaints when they see something wrong, relies on them.

But Toby Nixon, president of Washington Coalition for Open Government, says if your request is denied, you have to file a lawsuit.

“One of the key things we’re concerned about is the fact that our open government laws can only be enforced today by filing a lawsuit in Superior Court,” Nixon says.

That’s too expensive and burdensome for most regular citizens to take on. Nixon, Brian Sonntag and attorney general Rob McKenna have all supported faster, cheaper alternatives to resolve disputes over open records. They say these methods could also benefit state agencies, which have faced ever-increasing penalties from public records lawsuits.

Copyright 2012 KUOW