People across Washington State rose up earlier this year when politicians tried to draw a curtain of secrecy between the people and their government and exempt themselves from public records laws. The powers-that-be hoped voters wouldn’t notice, but thousands of regular citizens made their voices heardand reminded the politicians that open government is a core value for Washingtonians.
Government watchdogs are now hailing a new effort to build on that core value to keep Washington’s government open, transparent, and accountable. Organizers filed an initiative, I-1608, which will open up government negotiations so citizens and the press can know what public officials are saying and doing on the people’s behalf.
“The idea behind our initiative is simple: No citizen should be shut out from observing their government at work. Unfortunately that’s what happens today when our government and our public employees negotiate. Politicians are only too happy to close the door in the public’s face and do their work in secret,” initiative organizer Craig Williamson said.
“I-1608 will bust down the door and let citizens back in the room. After all, they have every right to be there. It’s all about trust.”
The new initiative takes inspiration from the Public Records Act, which also started as a citizens’ initiative and was approved by voters in 1972. “There’s a key line in that law,” Williamson noted, “that says the people ‘do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.’ With I-1608, the people will decide, not the political insiders who benefit from back-room deals.”
Williamson added, “When faced with the legislature’s attempt to exempt itself from public records laws, Jay Inslee stood up and vetoed that bill. The governor said last monththat ‘transparency is a cornerstone of democratic government.’ We completely agree, which is why I-1608 stands for the right of every citizen to know what their government is doing on their behalf. The old saying is true: Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
Signatures gathered as negotiations are underway
Highlighting the need for I-1608, the work of gathering qualifying signatures for the initiative will be going on as many governments begin bargaining negotiations. State negotiators will first meet on May 3, with the general government bargaining unit of the Washington Federation of State Employees, to start the latest round of state government employee negotiations. Many school districts will also be in the process of contract negotiations.
A recent (and confusing) ruling by the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission also shows the needfor a consistent rule grounded in state law, one that affirms the right of citizens to view negotiations. With some public employee groups sayingnow is the “time to negotiate BIG pay raises for all,” I-1608 will give voters the chance declare what should be obvious: That taxpayers, too, deserve a seat at the negotiating table to keep an eye on their money.
Opening up government negotiations is a controversial topic – among the people who want to keep the public locked out. For everyone else, it’s a common-sense idea whose time has come.
Lincoln and Kittitas counties, and the Pullman and Tukwila school districts, already embrace open collective bargaining negotiations. Many states and localities around the nation also conduct open negotiations, and the dire predictions of chaos by foes of open government don’t seem to be coming true.
“When government officials do the people’s business and spend the people’s money, the public has every right to be in the room,” said Toby Nixon, a Kirkland City Council member who is also president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
Nixon added, “The recent backlash against SB 6617 shows voters are in no mood to be told that more government business should be conducted in secret. Employee salaries are one of government’s biggest costs. To say the public should be kept in the dark about those negotiations is absurd.”
Many newspapers around the state have editorialized in the past supporting open negotiations, including the Seattle Times, the Tacoma News Tribune, the Longview Daily News, the Tri-CityHerald, and the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. The Columbian said that under current negotiation rules “the people paying the bills – taxpayers – have no say in the proceedings.” The Spokesman-Review editorialized, “There is no value added in keeping the public in the dark on negotiations that commit the state to huge expenditures.”
Initiative organizer Craig Williamson of the Yes on I-1608 committee expects broad interest from civic organizations and open government groups after the necessary signatures are collected to advance I-1608 to the November ballot, and anticipates such groups will be key allies this fall.
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