Elected officials’ financial data might go online

bshannon@theolympian.comApril 26, 2014 

Living in a state known for high-tech businesses, Washington voters might be surprised to learn that financial statements filed by elected officials and candidates are not posted on the state campaign disclosure website.

A move is afoot to change that.

Citizen members of the Public Disclosure Commission said this week that they favor publishing the yearly disclosure reports, known as F1 statements, on pdc.wa.gov. That move would reverse a long-standing position of past commissions, which preferred to shelter officials’ privacy and to release the data only in response to specific public requests.

“I think probably the time has come to get them online. They are available to the public if they ask. It’s the only thing you can’t look up (online). It seems kind of odd,” said Grant Degginger, a lawyer and vice chairman of the PDC who is a former Bellevue mayor. “… If you are filling it out, you must assume the world can read it sooner or later.”

About 5,600 elected officials and state employees file F1s every year, disclosing general information about income, real estate ownership and investments as well as details of other financial or business relationships. They also disclose government contracts that might benefit them.

Before the commission’s four current members vote to put the reports online, they want a bit more detail — and it’s possible they will withhold some details from the online look-up. One detail that has gotten attention is the home address of a candidate.

In a Thursday meeting in Olympia, commission chairman Amit Ranade of Seattle and commissioner Katrina Asay of Milton worried that making some information readily available may dissuade people from public service.

Asay also suggested that a different kind of form might be more appropriate for nonpartisan legislative staffers than for elected officials and candidates.

A recent online PDC survey — which drew 520 responses, nearly three-quarters of them from people who already file the forms — found that only 31 percent wanted the full F1 put online, while 44 percent said no part of the forms should be posted. The unscientific sampling found roughly 25 percent favored putting only some parts of the form online.

Of concern to Ranade was the 35 percent of respondents who claimed that online access to F1s would cause them to leave office or not run for re-election. He asked PDC staffers to drill down and find out specifically “what’s giving them heartburn.’’

The commission is also evaluating whether details of the F1 forms should be changed to make them more meaningful.

Finances are reported as a range of values that sometimes don’t tell much. For example, the top dollar category — “$100,000 or more” — doesn’t offer much insight in an era when nearly every home costs at least that much and someone doesn’t have to be wealthy to have socked away $100,000 for retirement.

The PDC may take up some of these issues during commissioners’ yearly retreat over the summer. It was at last year’s retreat that the impetus to look at publishing F1s online started.

It’s possible the commission could ask the Legislature to change the law in order to carve out exceptions for government nonpartisan legislative and executive state government staffers, who must file reports. There also are concerns about details concerning spouses and children of candidates or officials.

But advocates for open government believe there is no legal basis for not putting F1 forms online in their entirety.

Except for adjusting the reporting brackets for personal financial details, Rowland Thompson of Allied Daily Newspapers said there is no need to change anything on the forms — or to exempt legislative staffers.

“They sign up for the job. Hundreds of people apply for those jobs. It comes with a price,” he said.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com theolympian.com/politics-blog theolympian.com/state-workers @bradshannon2

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