By Steve Guntli
The attorney general approved a bill to increase government transparency, but the bill has encountered surprising opposition along party lines.
On January 27, Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson agave his seal of approval of House Bill 2353, an update of the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), after it was passed out of the house state government committee. The legislation would update penalties for knowing violations of the act, which requires that, with limited exceptions, any meeting of a governing body be open to the public. The penalty for violating the act has been raised from $100 to $500, and there will be a penalty of $1,000 for repeat knowing violations.
The bill was sponsored by committee chair Sam Hunt (D-Olympia) and supported by fellow Democrat representatives. “It is essential that our elected officials understand and follow the Open Meetings Act,” Hunt said. “One should not be slapped on the wrist for knowingly violating the open meetings provisions. This law has been with us since 1971, and this bill, for the first time since it was originally approved by the legislature, updates to 2016 levels the penalty for knowingly violating the Open Public Meetings Act.”
The bill was approved by a 4–3 vote that split along party lines. Hunt and three Democrat members of the committee voted in favor, while the three Republican committee members, including Luanne Van Werven (R-Lynden), voted in opposition. Van Werven said she voted against the measure because there wasn’t sufficient evidence of a correlation between higher fines and fewer violations of OPMA.
“I felt that it was a solution looking for a problem,” she said. “There were very few instances over the years of fines being assessed and, looking at other states, we couldn’t find any data suggesting that a higher fine would lead to fewer violations.”
Van Werven said she was also concerned an increase in fines would dampen enthusiasm for government work.
“I felt it would have a chilling effect on public service,” she told The Northern Light on February 2. “There are a lot of volunteer or low-paying government offices, and penalizing people for unwittingly making these mistakes might discourage people from serving.”
Ferguson expressed frustration at the split vote.
“I am disappointed to see this bipartisan legislation receive a party-line vote,” Ferguson said. “Transparency in government should not be a partisan issue. I call on members of both parties to support this legislation on the house floor.”
The bill has yet to be scheduled for a hearing on the House floor. Senator Pam Roach (R-Sumner) is sponsoring a companion bill in the senate.