Citizens should update, fund Public Disclosure Commission
Andrea McNamara Doyle is the latest director of the Washington state Public Disclosure Commission, and to that I say congratulations and good luck.
Congratulations because in this economy, any job is a good job.
Good luck because she’s going to need it.
The PDC, you see, is an orphan agency. It was birthed in 1972 by a voting public that likes the agency but has offered little more than affection since. That leaves it reliant on support from the resentful people it regulates, leaving it understaffed and underfunded.
It’s a hard knock life. But then, it probably knew it would be.
The 1972 election came at the end of what is culturally (if not numerically) the ’60s. It produced President Richard Nixon’s second term and Gov. Dan Evans’s third.
But it was the ballot propositions that left a legacy. Initiative 43 created the Shoreline Management Act. Initiative 44 capped regular property taxes at 1 percent. We gave the Legislature authority to approve construction bonds, ending the biennial parade of bond issues. And we narrowly adopted a state equal rights amendment for women.
At the same election we rejected greyhound racing, said no to private liquor sales, and even turned down a mechanism to review and end tax loopholes.
But the second-biggest margin of victory – just behind the property tax measures – went to Initiative 276, the end-product of three years of work by a coalition of good-government groups.
“Trust and confidence in government institutions is at an all-time low,” backers wrote in the voters pamphlet.
Legislative hostility was obvious. First, the opposition statement was written by a pair of legislative leaders who described it as “well-intentioned but certainly over-enthusiastic legislation.”
Lawmakers also placed two referendums on the ballot – weaker versions of lobbying registration and campaign finance reporting. Initiative sponsors wisely included a section that said if both the initiative and the referendums passed, which they did, I-276 would take precedence.
That was nearly 40 years ago. Almost immediately, the same special interests and same elected officials the measure was designed to shed light upon have tried to weaken it.
It is politically unwise to be openly opposed to disclosure and open records anymore. Assaults, instead, are hidden behind privacy and budgets. And political strategists spend hours finding loopholes to campaign disclosure, always one step ahead of attempts to close them.
The defense of the law has been led by the citizen groups that created it, though many are gone or much less active than they were.
Also in support are the news media, especially newspapers, that use the act to pry open government records and expose conflicts that come from campaign expenditures and the personal finances of elected officials.
The commission’s performance has been mixed. It is at its best when it enforces the laws’ requirements for timely and complete disclosure. Even at that it is too prone to settlement and compromise, bringing out its sharp teeth only for the most egregious cases.
Due to its accommodating nature and skeleton staffing, the agency favors the straight-forward investigation over the complex.
It is at its worst when it is called on to enforce campaign behavior and governmental ethics. A cynic might conclude that the Legislature gives it such assignments because it knows the commission is ill-equipped for them.
As it approaches middle age, the reform could use some reform, mostly to undo the damage done by lawmakers. Records exemptions need to be reduced, lobbyist reporting needs to be more timely, campaign reporting needs to be quicker and more thorough, definitions of what constitutes campaigning need to be greatly broadened.
Most significantly, though, the commission itself needs a dedicated source of funding so it no longer has to beg for adequate resources from the very people it polices.
Given those inherent conflicts, these changes need to come from citizens, not the Legislature. And should it make the ballot, the voters pamphlet statement could borrow from I-276: “Trust and confidence in government institutions is at an all-time low.”
Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657