Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: 2 agencies in Pierce County dare to throw open their doors

Staff Photographer

We’re quick to chide government agencies that curtail the public’s access to what they’re doing.

So today, we offer sunshine emoticons (the equivalent of gold stars back in the analog world) to a couple of local commissions that are considering or already have thrown open their processes to more public view and participation.

The Pierce County Council last month voted unanimously to remove confidentiality requirements from the county ethics code.

I described the ethics star chamber when I wrote about it in April.

Under the old rules, if I filed an ethics complaint against a county employee and told anyone I did so, that could be cause for my complaint to be dismissed. Or the county could have hit me with a Class 1 civil infraction.

Ethics commissioners and their hearings officer couldn’t tell anyone they’d received a complaint, let alone the contents of the complaint, the name of the person who complained or the person they complained about.

If commissioners found probable cause, a more public process ensued. But if they decided to drop a complaint, we didn’t even get to know it existed.

We bumped into the process in recent years while investigating complaints against Prosecutor Mark Lindquist and Assessor-Treasurer Dale Washam. We knew about the complaints only because we’d been tipped off by our sources.

To its credit, the County Council took up the matter almost immediately after our most recent story about the ethics commission. We had pressed for a copy of the commission’s findings, even though county code said we couldn’t have it. We knew the state Public Records Act ensured its release, and county officials agreed.

On June 21, the council amended the ethics code, removing penalties for talking about a complaint and requiring that the commission abide by the state Open Meetings Act and Public Records Act.

Councilman Derek Young initiated the changes.

“Transparency is good policy in general,” he said at the meeting, “and we should do it even when we’re not required.”

Way to go, County Council.

Then a week ago, the Port of Tacoma appeared to catch the sunshine bug.

The president of the port commission — a body that has erred on the side of the fewest public meetings required by law — offered a step in the direction of greater openness.

As business reporter Kate Martin reported, Connie Bacon proposed a rule that would require at least three public meetings before the commission could vote on a lease for a project that:

▪ “Stores, processes, manufactures or distributes fossil fuels” on more than 10 acres of land.

▪ Uses more than 1 million gallons of water a day.

▪ Or uses more than 26 megawatts of power.

Clearly, the move was in reaction to complaints about the port approving a lease for a methanol plant on first reading and then with only the required two days of notice.

If passed, the rule will require a first reading on the lease at one meeting, followed by fleshed out details and public comment at a second meeting, and a vote at a third meeting.

The multiple-readings system is employed by the city of Tacoma and many other larger municipalities.

Aside from slowing the process a bit — which sometimes is a good thing — this has to be good for public engagement and understanding. The commission would do well to employ it even more broadly than suggested in Bacon’s proposal.

It’s nice to see the port leadership dancing out into the daylight.

In either case, open processes don’t matter if people don’t use them and get involved.

GRIFFEY COVER: GOOD OR BAD?

We devoted a lot of resources last weekend to covering the induction of Ken Griffey Jr. into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

It seemed like a no-brainer.

Griffey was a player so many of us watched grow up and into a baseball superstar, plus he’s the first player to go in as a Seattle Mariner.

We ran a five-day series online about Griffey’s career, then packaged those stories, photos and info-graphics into a special section in print. And we sent a reporter and columnist to Cooperstown, New York, for live coverage of the induction July 24.

It also seemed like a no-brainer that we run Griffey’s photo across most of our front page Monday morning. And when he stood at the lectern and turned his baseball cap around backward — a trademark of Griffey’s — we knew we had our shot.

Newspaper front pages of momentous events still make great keepsakes, so we printed more papers than normal.

Single-copy buyers rewarded our efforts. We sold several hundred more copies Monday, and saw social media posts urging people to go buy the paper with the Griffey cover.

But not everyone appreciated the play.

Some readers respectfully disagreed with our decision to put sports on the front page. One thought we made a mistake by showing Griffey with his hat on backward.

And one was angry, calling the cover “absolutely obscene, revolting and ridiculous.”

Wow, and we thought the elections were divisive.

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