Full-time ombudsman crucial to a democracy

Executive editorJanuary 27, 2013 

Government decisions should be made in public. Government documents should be accessible. Government employees should know and follow state law.

The concepts are simple and crucial to operating a democracy. Yet, here in the real world, we still need watchdogs to ensure government agencies hold open the doors of government.

Tim Ford, open-government ombudsman in the state Attorney General’s Office since 2007, has been one of those watchdogs. He was appointed by former Attorney General Rob McKenna, who created the position in 2005. Ford helps citizens, government employees and members of the news media understand state open-records and public-meetings law. His work, undoubtedly, has headed off lawsuits.

Unfortunately, the AG cut the ombudsman position to part time in 2008 as his office budget was cut.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has been on the job only a few weeks but already has decided to keep the ombudsman position, albeit part time. Ferguson said he is following through on a campaign promise to foster government transparency.

One of his goals is to reinstate Ford as a full-time ombudsman, but he’s not sure he can do that in this budget cycle.

“I’m hoping to do it in the not-too-distant future,” Ferguson said Friday.

Ford believes the position must be full time.

More than 500 people a year seek Ford’s advice on open government, he said. They include citizens (and reporters) fighting for access, lawmakers seeking advice on new legislation and government staffers trying to follow the laws. Ford acts as consultant, a mediator and an educator. He struggles to meet the demand.

When he’s not acting as ombudsman, Ford provides legal counsel to state agencies, such as the state Liquor Control Board. He sometimes experiences what he calls the “natural tension” between zealously protecting his government clients and promoting the people’s right to open government.

“I need to be a full-time ombudsman,” Ford said. “I need independence to say what needs to be said.” He said he has made it clear that being part time is unworkable in “allowing me to do the job I want to do as ombudsman.”

Ferguson and Ford together are supporting House Bill 1198. It would require training of public officials and employees on public records and open meetings. Ford believes agencies would welcome the training.

“They love it, they want more of it and it needs to be more regular,” he said. If the bill passes, Ford will be the trainer.

Passing HB 1198 is on Ferguson’s short list of legislative priorities. Reinstating a full-time open-government ombudsman as soon as possible should be, too.

NEW COMIC STRIP

Beginning Friday, you’ll notice a change on our comics and puzzle pages.

The “No Kidding” trivia feature that runs daily between our crossword puzzles is being discontinued, giving us room for a new feature.

We’ll move the “Bizarro” strip from our comics page to the puzzle page and introduce a new strip, “Rhymes with Orange,” on the comics page.

Comic strip salespeople (yes, that is a profession) visit us every few months, touting cartoons they syndicate. They hand us a stack of sample strips we pass among a few editors (yes, that’s part of an editor’s job) who assess their funny-ness.

Generally, we look for a strip that’s fresh, but not too biting, a strip that’s reasonably well-drawn and would appeal to a wide audience, and a strip that consistently makes us smile.

We saw “Rhymes with Orange” a few months ago and kept it for the next opening on our page.

Hilary B. Price was the youngest woman to have a syndicated strip when she began drawing “Rhymes with Orange” in 1995, according to her bio. The strip twice has won the Best Newspaper Panel by the National Cartoonists Society and appears in 175 newspapers.

Price lives in Massachusetts with her dog, Rocky, and her cat, Seltzer. Dogs and cats frequently appear in her strips, along with a red-haired woman she acknowledges is her. However the strip doesn’t follow a single story line.

“Regular characters would fence in the way I approach my work,” she said in a Q&A with her editor, Brendan Burford.

Price admits that “nothing makes me happier than seeing a cat fall off a couch on YouTube” but also says “cynical humor is not my thing.

“I think my strip comforts people by having them realize that we’re all very much alike, and just as I’m laughing at myself, they’re able to laugh at themselves, too.”

We hope you enjoy “Rhymes with Orange.”

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434
karen.peterson@thenewstribune.com

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