In 1971, you could pay $28,300 for a new home, 8 cents for a first-class stamp, 36 cents for a gallon of gas and a $100 civil penalty for violating the state’s brand-new Open Public Meetings Act.
Forty-five years later, the costs of all those things – all but one – have risen considerably. You probably guessed which one: The state of Washington is stuck in a time warp where the price of failing to be accountable to the public is the same as it ever was.
That needs to change, and legislation that has advanced out of committees in both houses of the Legislature this session would do just that.
House Bill 2353 and Senate Bill 6171 would update the Open Public Meetings Act to adjust for inflation the penalty for knowingly violating the public’s trust by meeting in private. A first-time violation would have a $500 penalty, and a second violation would cost $1,000.
Those amounts track the penalties in many other states and are lower than ones in some others. Currently the state’s law does not have an increased penalty for repeat violations.
The bills, which were requested by Attorney General Bob Ferguson, have bipartisan South Sound sponsorship. The House bill’s sponsors include Democrats Sam Hunt of Olympia and Christine Kilduff of University Place and Republican Drew Stokesbary of Auburn. The Senate bill’s sponsors include majority floor leader Joe Fain, R-Auburn.
With the current penalty, violations are almost not worth pursuing, making it an ineffective deterrent to those public officials whose default position is to do the public’s business behind closed doors.
Public officials can’t claim ignorance of the Open Public Meetings Law as an excuse for meeting in private. Since July 2014, state law has required local and statewide officials and records officers to be trained in laws pertaining to open meetings and public records within 90 days of being sworn in or assuming their duties. Training is available in person or online, and refresher training is required every four years.
The requirement covers everything from fire district boards and city councils to state boards and commissions. (Legislators, no surprise, exempted themselves.)
In addition, the attorney general’s office has an ombudsman on staff – an assistant attorney general for open government – to answer officials’ questions about whether a particular meeting falls under the Open Public Meetings Act, requiring public notice and access.
Ratcheting up the penalty for violations sends a message to officials to be think twice if they are tempted to skirt the open meetings law. Unless there is an overwhelming need for executive session, officials should always side with the public’s right to know what’s going on.