January 13, 2015

A farce, a tragedy, or both

By Ethan W. Blevins Attorney

James Madison once wrote, “a popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a Farce, or a Tragedy, or, perhaps, both.” Despite being bad at agreeing on about anything nowadays, most everyone likes the idea of transparent government. Except for the government.

Last Friday, PLF attorneys filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court of Washington advocating for greater openness in land use management. The case involves a series of secret meetings attended by several members of the San Juan County Council while developing new critical area ordinances. Because these ordinances can restrict use of private property and reduce property values, they have generated substantial controversy across the island county. Yet affected property owners were shut out of many of the meetings where these policies were discussed.

A citizen group sued the County under Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act. However, both the trial court and the court of appeals held that the County didn’t need to open its secret deliberations to the public. According to the court of appeals, because only three members of the six-member council were involved in the covert meetings, the open meetings law didn’t apply. No language in the Open Public Meetings Act supports that conclusion.

PLF’s amicus brief argues that republican government depends on openness. Democracy only works when elected bodies actually represent the interests of their constituents. But that can’t happen when voters are disconnected from the workings of government. When officials plan policy in the dark, voters lack the information and opportunity to influence those policies, and elected officers lack the constraints of public scrutiny.

The Washington Open Public Meetings Act is designed to help ensure that farces and tragedies play out on stage and not in popular government. We hope the Supreme Court of Washington will uphold the law’s promise of transparency and affirm that elected bodies like the County Council can’t retreat into the shadows.

 

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