Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: Celebrate the Sunshine

Happy Sunshine Sunday.

Today begins Sunshine Week. It was so dubbed in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors as a celebration of open government and the role of the press and others in keeping it open. I’m proud to serve on the ASNE board.

Our front-page story today is but one example of the power of open government, which in this case allowed us to mine public documents for information even as officials worked to keep that information secret.

Not everyone will be celebrating Sunshine Week this year. Clearly, President Donald Trump is no fan.

Already in his young administration, he has declared the press an “enemy of the American people,” denied access to news organizations he doesn’t like and dubbed news reports unfavorable to him as fake.

But a statement signed recently by 80 organizations that support First Amendment freedoms reminds us, “the job of the press is not to please the president but to inform the public, a function that is essential to democracy.”

The statement also included this important passage:

“Our Constitution enshrines the press as an independent watchdog and bulwark against tyranny and official misconduct. Its function is to monitor and report on the actions of public officials so that the public can hold them accountable. The effort to delegitimize the press undermines democracy, and officials who challenge the value of an independent press or question its legitimacy betray the country’s most cherished values and undercut one of its most significant strengths.

“The First Amendment protects the right to protest, dissent, and petition government for a redress of grievances, but these rights cannot be exercised without a free press that provides information to the public. Together, these rights represent the constitutionally sanctioned method for the public to oppose government policies and activities and to seek change. The wisdom of this system can be seen in parts of the world where such a right does not exist, or is not honored, and violent opposition is the only available avenue to express opposition or remedy injustice.”

These same freedoms and responsibilities apply to The New York Times and Fox News.

A government with nothing to hide should welcome the sunshine from all sides.

OPENING UNION NEGOTIATIONS

I wrote last month about local government agencies allowing members of the public (taxpayers) to attend negotiation sessions with public employee unions. In these sessions, citizens can’t speak, but can quietly witness the back and forth.

Washington state’s Open Public Meetings Act allows negotiations to take place behind closed doors but doesn’t require it.

Lincoln County commissioners voted to last fall to conduct negotiations in public. The Pullman School Board voted likewise a few weeks ago.

Grays Harbor County commissioners were expected to adopt the practice Feb. 6. Two of the three commissioners were vocal supporters of it at the previous meeting, but they delayed a vote until they had all members present.

At that second meeting, commenters lined up for an hour to speak on the matter. Most spoke for public employee unions. They said opening negotiations would “bring forth intimidation” and threaten family wage jobs.

“This resolution is unnecessary,” one woman said. “There are no secrets here.”

“All it will do is clutter a fine-tuned process with disastrous results,” said another man. He expressed concern about including “untrained members of the public … with personal agendas and a lack of knowledge.”

A supporter of more openness, who said he was born and raised in the county and had union member friends, offered this: “I’m the guy paying the bill. You guys are taking my tax money. … I want to know where it’s going.”

The motion to approve open negotiation meetings died that night for lack of a second. Much applause followed.

Bills before the Legislature requiring public employee contracts to be negotiated in open session similarly died.

However, Pierce County executive Bruce Dammeier told the TNT Editorial Board last week that he is looking for a way to provide more transparency even if county contract negotiation meetings aren’t open. One possibility could be to disclose the back-and-forth offers of one side to the other.

Even that would be a solid step toward allowing the public to see how the process works and how their money is spent.

SPORTS COVERAGE AWARDS

The Associated Press Sports Editors has awarded the TNT three Top 10 designations among mid-sized newspapers. Our work was among the country’s 10 best in 2016 in the following categories:

▪ Special sections — Ken Griffey Jr. Hall of Fame section.

▪ Sunday Sports sections.

▪ Beat writing — Christian Caple, who covers University of Washington sports.

We also earned an honorable mention for our sports coverage online.

Credit goes to our hard-working staff of sports writers, editors, designers and online producers, led by sports editor Darrin Beene.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434, @TNTkpeterson

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