Le Secret

Our Right To Know

by: Posted on: March 08, 2012

Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons {PD-US}

By David Seago, board member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. He retired in 2008 as editorial page editor for The News Tribune in Tacoma.

Editor’s Note: We are honored to have David Seago from the Washington Coalition for Open Government educate us on how crucial government transparency and freedom of information laws are for our environment and democracy.

 

In December of 2007, a Seattle Times news photographer taking aerial shots of massive flooding in Lewis County noticed a startling sight: a naked mountain.

The Times soon published a front-page color photo of a steep-sided Lewis County peak almost completely denuded by clear-cut logging. Several large landslides had gashed its slopes and plunged to a creek below. From the air, the mountain, treeless from top to bottom, looked like a plucked chicken.

The shocking photo set off a storm of criticism directed at the Weyerhaeuser Co. and the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for what appeared to be egregious clear cutting. An outraged public demanded to know why it was allowed to happen.

Did the hundreds of forest landslides triggered by the storm greatly worsen the flooding that caused more than $57 million in property damage to Lewis County in December 2007? Was man just as much to blame as Mother Nature?

The key that unlocked the answer was the state’s Public Records Act.

With expert use of public disclosure requests, the Times probed deeply into DNR records on logging activities in the upper Chehalis River watershed.

The bottom line: Weyerhaeuser frequently logged on unstable slopes clearly at risk of landslides. And DNR, supposedly the watchdog of the timber industry, was routinely granting logging permits without adequate scrutiny of geological risks.

Partly as a result of the Times series, voters booted the incumbent lands commissioner out of office in favor of a more environmentally-minded candidate. Weyerhaeuser voluntarily adopted stronger landslide protections, later followed by formal state action closing gaps in logging rules.

This was an outstanding example of the press playing a watchdog role over government. But the Times series would never have happened if state officials could fend off nosy reporters or environmental activists by denying access to potentially embarrassing public records.

The link between environmental protection and open government can hardly be understated. Much of what the public knows today about radioactive contamination from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington stems from the work of environmental groups such as Heart of America Northwest that make extensive use of both federal and state freedom of information laws.

The Seattle-based Center for Environmental Law and Policy, to cite another example, has used extensive public-records requests to ferret out information about contamination of the Spokane River by PCBs and other toxic chemicals. The center has joined with the Sierra Club in a lawsuit to force stronger enforcement of clean-water laws.

Ordinary citizens can examine local pollution problems, or watch for them, by requesting records of industrial pollution-discharge permits handled by state agencies. Foes of large-scale commercial geoduck farming in Puget Sound examine county records of the companies’ applications for shorelines permits.

And in environmental disputes, the regulatory agencies involved, from the smallest sewer district to the federal government, are required by the state Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) and federal law to hold hearings and make key decisions in public. Federal rules for public hearing and decision-making by federal agencies are not as extensive as those required of state and local agencies in Washington by the OPMA.

The cornerstones of open government in Washington are the 1971 Open Public Meetings Act, enacted by the State Legislature, and the Public Records Act, enacted by a statewide voter initiative in 1972.

Under the records law, public officials cannot ask any citizen why she wants certain records, nor can they charge more than the reasonable copying fees prescribed by law. They must respond to records requests in a timely manner, or cite their specific authority to deny any requests.

To many public officials and bureaucrats, open-government laws are a pain in the neck. They frequently urge legislators to weaken disclosure requirements in the name of efficiency.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government, an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, promotes and defends the public’s right to know. It lobbies against bad bills in Olympia and offers help to citizens who believe their local officials are operating in unwarranted secrecy.

Like protecting the environment, defending open government is a never-ending fight. Both require constant vigilance and a firm conviction that an informed citizenry is essential to democracy.


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