Open Government

WPC's Center for Government Reform's mission is to partner with stakeholders and citizens to work toward a government focused on its core functions while improving its transparency, accountability, performance, and effectiveness for taxpayers.

Open Government Blog

Open Government Task Force Members

August 27, 2009 in Blog

State Auditor Brian Sonntag announced yesterday he is creating an Open Government Task Force with Attorney General Rob
McKenna. The purpose of the new Task Force
is to study and make recommendations on the creation of an
administrative board to rule on complaints of violations regarding the
state's open government laws. The Task Force meetings are scheduled for
October 5, 2009 and November 2, 2009 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the
Attorney General's Office in Olympia. Below is a list of the Task Force members:

Co-Chairs:
  • Rob McKenna, Attorney General
  • Brian Sonntag, State Auditor

Staff Contact:

  • Tim Ford, Open Government Ombudsman for Attorney General's Office

Task Force Members:

  • Paula Adams, Public Information and Records Officer for King County Department of Development and Environmental Services
  • Jim Doherty, Legal Consultant, Municipal Research and Services Center
  • Judy Endejan, Attorney, Graham and Dunn
  • Ruth Gordon, County Clerk for Jefferson County
  • Jerry Handfield, State Archivist for Secretary of State
  • John Hendrickson, Kenmore City Council Councilmember
  • Mary Hunt, Douglas County Commissioner District 3
  • Chris Hurst, State Representative, 31st District (member of State Government Committee)
  • Graham Johnson, (Executive Director of the Public Disclosure Commission 1974-1993)
  • Lynn Kessler, State Representative, 24th District – Majority Leader
  • Joel Kretz, State Representative, 7th District
  • Mark Lindquist, Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney
  • Louis Mitchell, Bremerton School Board of Directors
  • Bob Morton, Senator, 7th District
  • Shirley Nixon, Citizen Activist
  • Toby Nixon, President Washington Coalition for Open Government
  • Bob Partlow, Foster Parent Support and Recruitment for Department of Social and Health Services
  • Althea Paulson, Kitsap Regional Library Board Member
  • Kevin Phelps, Deputy County Executive & Executive Director of Operations & Infrastructure for Pierce County
  • Craig Ritchie, Attorney for City of Sequim
  • Rowland Thompson, Executive Director Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington

Here are additional details about the Open Government Task Force:

We [McKenna and Sonntag] created this Task Force to address growing concerns among governments and the public. State agencies and local governments face a logjam of citizen complaints, costly litigation over the PRA and the OPMA, and uncertainty regarding potential liability that may require payment of attorneys' fees, costs, and daily penalties. Citizens who are denied access to public records and public meetings have no choice other than to go to court, and lawsuits may take years to resolve and are costly. Going to court to enforce legal rights to access public records and public meetings is simply not an option for many citizens.

An efficient and inexpensive solution is needed to resolve complaints and provide greater access to public records and public meetings while reducing costs to governmental agencies and the public. Many !
states provide an independent administrative review process to resolve complaints without litigation. These states use administrative boards to offer services including mediation, dispute resolution, non-binding legal interpretations, investigation of potential violations, issuing final appealable rulings, offerings of legislative reform, and training public officials about their responsibilities under the law.

The Task Force may consider the pros and cons of the open government enforcement efforts in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York.

PDC holds work session on enforcing open government laws

August 26, 2009 in Blog

An all-star panel participated in a Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) work session today discussing how the public records and open meetings acts should be enforced. Joining the PDC Commissioners on the panel were:

  • State Auditor Brian Sonntag
  • Representative Sam Hunt
  • Representative Marko Liias (sponsor of bill discussed)
  • Tim Ford, Open Government Ombudsman for the Attorney General’s Office 
  • Toby Nixon, President Washington Coalition for Open Government
  • Dan Heid, Washington Municipal Attorney’s Association
  • Ramsey Ramerman, Attorney and state Sunshine Committee Member
  • Graham Johnson, former Executive Director of the PDC

The focus of the work session was HB 1784 introduced during the 2009 Legislative Session by Representatives Liias, Chase, Hasegawa, Appleton and Ormsby. The bill received a hearing but was not voted on. Here is a summary of HB 1784 from the House Bill report:

In 1971 the Legislature enacted the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). The OPMA requires that all meetings of the governing body of a public agency be open to and public, and all persons shall be allowed to attend.

Initiative 276, passed by the voters in 1972, established the disclosure of campaign finances, lobbyist activities, financial affairs of elective officers and candidates, and access to public records. That initiative also created the Public Disclosu!
re Commission (PDC), a five member, bipartisan citizen commission, to enforce the provisions of the campaign finance disclosure law.

Twenty years later, in 1992, the Fair Campaign Practices Act was enacted following passage of Initiative 134. Initiative 134 imposed campaign contribution limits on elections for statewide and legislative office, further regulated independent expenditures, restricted the use of public funds for political purposes, and required public officials to report gifts received in excess of $50.

Unlike the campaign finance disclosure laws, enforcement of the OPMA and the Public Records Act (PRA) must be pursued through the judicial system.

The powers of the PDC are expanded to include the enforcement of the OPMA and the PRA. The PDC is authorized to investigate, review and adjudicate complaints alleging violations of the OPMA and the PRA. The PDC is also authorized to issue interpretative opinions of the OPMA and the PRA!
. In addition, the PDC can provide confidential consultation r!
egarding a person's or agency's duties under the OPMA and the PRA.

PDC staff highlighted similar open government enforcement efforts in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York.

Panelists were provided a work sheet asking their opinions on “Possible Elements of Open Government Oversight Agency” including:

  • Single agency to oversee open government
  • Independent of other agencies
  • Single agency head
  • Multimember board
  • Oversee open records
  • Oversee open meetings
  • Jurisdiction over state agencies
  • Jurisdiction over local agencies
  • Conduct investigations
  • Conduct hearings
  • Exclusive jurisdiction over disputes
  • Dual jurisdiction over disputes, with superior courts
  • Use Administrative Law Judges
  • Have mediation program
  • Have ombudsman program
  • Adopt rules
  • Issue formal written opinions (oral or written)
  • Provide materials
  • Provide training
  • Operate toll-free number
  • Track PRA/OPMA legislation
  • Submit annual report to Legislature
  • Funding source
  • Effective date of agency

The discussion centered around common themes. From the citizen advocates: It is too hard for requestors to take on governmental entities in an open government dispute. From the government lawyers: There need to be more costs/restrictions on citizens to avoid abuse of the laws and burdening governmental entities.

There did seem to be some agreement that an independent oversight entity is needed though the devil is in the details for the panelists.

State Auditor Sonntag announced that he is creating an Open Government Task Force with Attorney General Rob McKenna to continue this discussion. The purpose of the new Task Force is to study and make recommendations on the creation of an administrative board to rule on complaints of violations regarding the state's open government laws. The Task Force meetings are scheduled for October 5, 2009 and November 2, 2009 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Attorney General's Office in Olympia.

Whether it is the PDC or an independent Open Government Ombudsman, citizens and government would benefit from an independent entity charged with enforcing the state's open government laws while also providing training and assistance. We discussed the need for this in our latest Policy Guide (page 8 of pdf).

Legislative records exemption on the clock

August 26, 2009 in Blog

The state Sunshine Committee may finally take action at its meeting
next Monday on the issue of legislative records and the public records
act. Here is the draft agenda. Additional information here:

After health care "reform" are private pensions next?

August 25, 2009 in Blog

With the country still at a fevered pitch over the national health care debate, the next controversial policy may already be in the works - changes to private pensions. Last year the Chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. George Miller (D-CA), requested a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of alternatives approaches to the private pension system. In a report released yesterday GAO said (emphasis added):

The private pension systems of the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom represent alternative approaches to address these key risks, but they also pose trade-offs to consider in applying them in the U.S. We selected these countries from a larger group after an initial review indicated that their private pension systems addressed many of the risks that U.S. workers face and had the potential to yield useful lessons for the U.S. !
experience. Their systems offer ideas for mitigating risks in accumulating and preserving benefits, such as mandating coverage, sharing investment risk among workers and employers, restricting leakage, and using annuities to drawdown benefits.

Several proposals for alternative pension plan designs in the U.S. incorporate approaches to mitigate the risks faced by workers, such as incentives to increase voluntary coverage or mandating annuitization. However, these approaches also pose trade-offs and costs for workers and employers, and in some cases the federal government. In particular, important trade-offs arise with mandating coverage and contributions, guaranteeing investment returns, and annuitizing benefits. For example, mandatory approaches reduce risks but also raise concerns about the impact of higher benefit costs, particularly on small employers.

Any of this sound familiar to the current health care debate!
?

As government payrolls grow, so does the cost to the rest of us

August 24, 2009 in Blog

This past weekend, The Seattle Times business columnist John Talton opined that as government tightens its belt during this "Great Recession" the layoffs are contributing to further strain on the unemployment system:

"Many citizens applaud when politicians say government must tighten
its belt, but those cutbacks are adding to unemployment, especially in
a downturn that has seen some of the most draconian cuts in decades.

Washington expects to lay off 8,000 state workers. Oregon has an
additional 1,700 state jobs in jeopardy. An estimated 64,000 jobs are
expected to be lost in California. Jobs lost at the county and local
level are even higher.

In the Great Depression, government became the employer of last
resort, providing jobs for millions. So far, the Obama stimulus package
has helped slow the rate of job losses. But the stimulus was too small
to make up for the lost output and jobs of a recession this size (yet
big enough to worry our international creditors)."

My colleague Jason Mercier already touched on the Rockefeller report from last week, which said that, nationally, over 6.9 million private sector jobs have been lost between December 2007 and July 2009, while state and local government employment rose by 110,000.

Ok, but how does that match up with Washington state's numbers? Marples Pacific Northwest Letter (subscription required) from earlier this month shows a chart displaying data from various sectors of the economy in the northwest states.

Some of Washington state's numbers:

  • Construction -- down 41,100 jobs, or 19.6%
  • Manufacturing -- down 27,100 jobs, or 9.1%
  • Trade, transportation and utilities -- down 25,700 jobs, or 4.6%
  • Education and health services -- up 11,900 jobs, or 3.3%
  • Government -- up 9,900 jobs, or 1.8%

As Jason pointed out, unemployment numbers are lagging indicators and it is possible that unemployment numbers for government may still go lower because it takes awhile for the lagging tax collections to impact government payrolls.

However, I caution against using "jobs" as the be all end all goal for economic recovery. At the risk of sounding crass, "jobs" are meaningless unless they are producing a good or carrying out a service people want. In other words, merely hiring a person to relieve them of joblessness may help out that person in the short run, but does not contribute anything to the economy and therefore cannot be justified. (For more on why measuring economic success in the area of green jobs on "job hours" instead of growth and productivity, see Todd Myer's piece here)

I also !
think it is interesting Talton points out that the stimulus wasn't large enough to stem job loss yet large enough to make our foreign creditors nervous. Would it have been better to go much deeper into debt to theoretically lose fewer jobs? I have yet to see any evidence that this would have indeed worked. Or perhaps only for the first few weeks until the US would have had to declare bankruptcy or China and other Sovereign Wealth Funds would have simply said "enough!" to buying up all the debt this plan would have required.

The reality is that every private sector job lost only serves to increase the cost amongst the rest of the employed to foot the bill for government and the services government provides. It makes little sense, then, to have government become the employer of last resort even if those jobs are temporary, because the cost must be paid and will decrease future economic growth. Short-term benefits with incalculable future costs are always m!
ore palatable to most politicians and their constituents than !
the philosophy of delayed gratification.

Government employment grew while private sector shed 6.9 million jobs

August 20, 2009 in Blog

The New York Times has an interesting story about the growth in government employment across the nation as the recession hit even as the private sector was shedding jobs. From the article:

While the private sector has shed 6.9 million jobs since the beginning of the recession, state and local governments have expanded their payrolls and added 110,000 jobs, according to a report issued Thursday by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.

The report, based on an analysis of federal jobs data, found that state and local governments steadily added jobs for eight months after the recession began in December 2007, with their employment peaking last August. State and local governments have since lost 55,000 jobs, but from the beginning of the recession through last month they gained!
a net of 110,000 jobs, the report found, in part because of the federal stimulus program.

Government jobs are always more stable than private sector jobs during downturns, but their ability to weather the current deep recession startled Donald J. Boyd, the senior fellow at the institute who wrote the report.

“I am a little surprised at the fact that state and local government has remained as stable as it has in the nation as a whole, given the depth of the current recession,” Mr. Boyd said in an interview.

The report offered several possible explanations for the disparity between the private and public sectors. It noted that there can be a short lag between an economic downturn and the time it hits states in the form of lower tax collections, and an even longer delay before the problems hit local governments in the form of reduced state aid and lower property tax collections.

This appears to also be the case in Washin!
gton. As shown by this table from fiscal.wa.gov, full-time equivalent positions at the state level grew rapidly during the previous budget only to be reduced in the current budget once projected revenues began to show the impact of the recession.

Fte

Here is one of the most striking tables from the Rockefeller Institute employment report.

OFM releases state employee salary details

August 19, 2009 in Blog

The Office of Financial Management (OFM) has posted the 2009 Personnel Detail Report listing individual state employee salaries. According to OFM:

"This edition of the Personnel Detail Report includes those employees on the state payroll as of January 2009. The general salary information listed in the Personnel Detail Report is the pay rate effective January 31, 2009 as paid on February 10, 2009.

The report is compiled by the state Office of Financial Management (OFM) from information provided by the state's payroll systems. The information OFM receives from the payroll systems is entered and maintained at the individual agencies."

Users of the data can search by functional area of state government or by agency.

Salary information is also provided for legislators, judges, and statewide elected officials.

UPDATED

Not sure why this information wasn't provided on OFM's website but here are the top 200 salaries (hat tip Joe Turner):

Rep. McMorris Rodgers launches transparency website

August 17, 2009 in Blog

Washington state Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rogers has put together a nifty transparency resource providing details on federal earmarks, stimulus spending and transparency legislation. Here is what her website says about Sunshine.gop.gov:

"I wanted to let you know about a new and cutting edge tool giving you greater access to how the federal government spends our tax dollars.  I developed sunshine.gop.gov to allow you to track stimulus dollars, banks that received Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds, and earmark and authorization requests on one site.

Six months ago, lawmakers rushed through a $787 billion stimulus package and before that a $700 billion TARP program.  With all this record spending, you should have the right to see how their tax dollars are being spent.  Not only will this website give you more insight but it will ultimate!
ly hold the federal government accountable for how it spends our money."

The site allows users to:

The section on earmark requests is worth the visit alone. According to the site:

"Each year Members of Congress submit requests to the appropriations subcommittees for specific projects to be funded in bills that keep the federal government operating annually. These provisions are known as earmarks; once they are written into law, federal agencies must carry them out. Earmarks are present in other pieces of legislation as well, but those in appropriations bills have recently been the subject of much controversy.

In the past the information about who submitted these requests was not available to the public. This year all members who chose to submit earmark requests to the Appropriations Committee were compelled to disclose those requests on their Office website. We’ve compiled all of those requests into a searchable database here. Please peruse the database and feel free to share your thoughts in the !
comments section."

Here are the earmark requests for Washington's Representatives (click on link):

NY state sets the tone for regulatory reform

August 11, 2009 in Blog

New York, often thought of as the poor man's version of California when it comes to cautionary tales, last week managed to set a good example when Governor David Paterson handed down an executive order aimed at cutting unneeded regulations on businesses.

"Executive Order No. 25 establishes a Regulatory and Review Program to eliminate or revise antiquated and burdensome regulations on businesses, local governments, health care providers and other regulated entities, and focus the State's regulations on those necessary to retain and strengthen critical protections for public health, safety and welfare."

The press release states that the executive order is a significant part of an overall agenda to reduce unnecessary burdens and mandates on local governments and businesses to help stimulate the economy and keep taxpayers'!
liability down.

Among some of the program particulars:

  • The Review Committee will invite comment from the public on whether existing regulations are unnecessary, unbalanced, or unwise.
  • Participating Agencies will compile the list of complaints and prioritize those the public is most concerned with.
  • Within 45 days, the Participating Agencies will complete their analysis of the affected regulations and use cost/benefit analysis to recommend action.
  • The Review Committee will report its progress regularly to the Governor

New York has had an Office of Regulatory Reform since 1995. In fact, WPC has referred to it as something Washington state should consider. We have the Office of Regulatory Assistance in this state -- and while it is good that Washington policymakers recognize the business community needs some help handling regulations, the better option would be to have an office of regulatory reform -- an office tasked with making regulations easier to understand, less burdensome and our systems more efficient.

Policymakers in Washington have passed various bills in the past to help alleviate undue regulations that disproportionately hit small businesses. However, a lot of these do not have teeth. In other words, agencies may have to do an internal report on how any new major rulemaking will affect small businesses, but there is little to keep that new regulation from be!
coming a reality, much less any incentive on the agency's part to limit the impact its rules have.

There is a lot to be done on regulatory reform in Washington state and not to sound cliche but it is going to take some out-of-the-box thinking to try and reform our system so that state government treats businesses more like a customer, rather than a subject.

We can reform our regulatory structure to minimize the burden they place on businesses while still maximizing the intent of those regulations -- health, safety and environmental protection. Emulating New York's Office of Regulatory Reform would be a good place to start.

Candidates respond to open government questionnaire

August 10, 2009 in Blog

Just in time for the August primary election the Washington Coalition for Open Government has published the responses to its candidate questionnaire. Among those responding were several candidates for King County Executive. Here are the answers for Dow Constantine, Fred Jarrett, and Alan E. Lobdell.     

Questions gauged candidate's support for:

  • recording executive sessions;
  • restricting the use of attorney-client privilege to deny records release;
  • creating an independent open government ombudsman;
  • requiring open government training for government employees and elected officials;
  • archiving electronic records; and
  • stopping abuse of third-party injunctions.

Here is the link to all the candidate surveys returned so far. Though the deadline was July 31, surveys will continue to be posted as received.

According to the Coalition's website:

The Washington Coalition for Open Government represents individuals and organizations intent on preserving and protecting Washington’s open government laws. Members of the Coalition represent a broad range of interests including news media, public affairs, law, academia, labor, business, current and retired public officials, community activists, and others. Its mission is to represent the public in matters where open government issues are raised, are threatened, or deserve broader exposure.

The Coalition desires to make known to its members and to the general public the positions of candidates for public office on open government issues. To that end, we have cr!
eated the candidate questionnaire.

Washington Policy Center is a member of the Coalition. Here are the open government recommendations from our latest Policy Guide:

  • Create a Public Records Ombudsman authorized to enforce the Public Records Act.
  • Clarify the use of the attorney client-privilege exemption.
  • Create criminal penalties for willful violation of the Public Records Act.
  • Require audio taping of executive sessions.
  • The legislature should make itself subject to the Public Records Act and Open Public Meetings Act.
  • Adopt a constitutional amendment placing the preamble of the Public Records Act into the constitution, and require a 60 percent vote of lawmakers to enact a new exemption from disclosure to take effect.