Strong open government laws are critical to a well-functioning republic and ensuring public accountability. Two recent shocking stories, one in Washington and one in Idaho, however, sadly illustrate the lengths that some public officials will go to frustrate this important accountability. As a strong supporter of robust public records laws, the details from these stories are truly dismaying.
First, consider a KING 5 story in Washington that a state economist was not only threatened to keep important information from the public but was explicitly told not to put anything in writing that could be subject to a public records request:
“A state economist says he had to resign after suffering retaliation for his analysis that the state’s cap-and-trade policy would significantly increase gas prices . . .
State leaders told consumers not to worry: the cap-and-trade system wouldn’t add much to the price of gas. Two months before the policy went into effect, a top official at the Dept. of Ecology said drivers wouldn’t notice . . .
In a legal claim filed against WSDOT, the Office of Financial Management (OFM) and the Office of the Governor Thursday, Smith alleges he was pressured in January to keep quiet about his calculation that cap-and-trade would lead to a 45- to 50-cent increase on every gallon of gas. He also says he was instructed not to write emails about it to avoid having to turn over the documentation if someone requested public records on the topic.”
Todd Myers, the Environmental Policy Director for the Washington Policy Center has been warning since before the state’s new cap and trade program went into effect that a similar price increase would occur. Washington state officials routinely dismissed his analysis saying the costs, if any, would only be “pennies.”
Myers told me:
“If what is reported is accurate, the Inslee Administration went to significant lengths to hide the evidence that their claims the new tax on CO2 would have a small impact on gas prices. They knew the claim was dishonest and appear to have threatened state employees to hide the truth.”
Washington state law states:
“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, 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. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”
The second troubling story is in Idaho as reported by BoiseDev:
“A Boise State University official said under oath that a senior university official renamed a document to hide it from public scrutiny and skirt Idaho’s Public Records Act, and that senior employees had been told to keep certain things out of public records due to ‘political climate.’
It’s the latest in a series of attempts the school has taken to avoid public scrutiny of its workings.
The admissions came from an August deposition of Nicole Nimmons, the school’s associate vice president for campus services. Nimmons was being asked by an attorney for Big City Coffee about records practices in the coffee shop’s lawsuit against the university . .
Big City’s attorney asked Nimmons if it was standard practice to use codes to ‘evade public disclosure.’
‘I’ve been asked and told not to put things in writing at times because of public records requests and documentation,’ Nimmons replied.”
Idaho’s Public Records Law Manual clearly explains:
“Open government is the cornerstone of a free society.
Both the Washington and Idaho constitutions proclaim:
“All political power is inherent in the people.”
The foundations for an accountable government can be found in strong citizen oversight, and one of the most critical tools to achieve this is open government laws. Willful efforts by government officials to thwart public records and open government requirements are a threat to the republic and an insult to the people’s constitutional right to be informed, hold elected officials accountable, and direct their governance.