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Why disclosure matters

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In our state Constitution, citizens reserve much power for themselves. They can overturn legislative acts, and craft laws themselves through the initiative process. One such effort, in 1972, created the pioneering Public Disclosure Act.
This power provides a counterweight to government excess, and is a prime example of Washington’s long tradition of citizen oversight. It should never be taken for granted, and always defended.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday morning, Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna will argue for maintaining the openness that makes citizen oversight work. Opposing him will be an attorney for Protect Marriage Washington, the Arlington-based group that sued to have signatures and other personal information from last year’s Referendum 71 petitions barred from public disclosure, to prevent possible harassment of those who signed.
The plaintiffs would turn the Public Disclosure Act — approved by 72 percent of voters — on its head. In the interest of guarding against a potential threat, they’re OK with trusting government to administer the initiative and referendum process without the oversight of citizens or the press.
Perhaps they’ve forgotten about the legal mess that followed the 2004 gubernatorial election, in which Chris Gregoire edged Dino Rossi by 133 votes after two recounts and a court challenge. Few were willing simply to trust that election officials had counted accurately then, and they shouldn’t put blind faith in their counting of petition signatures, either.
After all, Referendum 71 — which would have overturned the Legislature’s expansion of rights and responsibilities for same-sex couples — barely got enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. What if it had come up a few short? Think the backers of this lawsuit would have wanted access to petitions so they or a media organization could double-check the government’s work?
The point is, oversight by citizens, groups and media is a useful and essential check on government at all levels. Access to petition signatures is a tool the public has reserved for itself to ensure good government.
The potential for harassment can be addressed in other ways. Those who would threaten to misuse the state’s tradition of openness should be called out, especially by their own side. They ought to be prosecuted aggressively if they break existing laws against harassment or intimidation.
Instances of such behavior are likely to be few and isolated, though — certainly not enough to outweigh the need for government transparency.
The Public Disclosure Act, like the initiative and referendum processes, helps the people keep control over the instruments of government they have created. Secrecy, even if well-intentioned, undermines that virtuous goal.

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