By Paul Roberts and Jim Restucci, Paul Roberts and Jim Restucci, Guest columnists
City officials across our state are committed to leading open and transparent agencies that engage constituents and reflect the very best of their communities. During Sunshine Week – a week dedicated to promoting a dialogue about the importance of open government — we took a moment to stand up and applaud the thousands of city and town officials, staff, and committee members who work to support these principles.
Washingtonians are serious about their open government laws — it’s the fabric of their history. In 1971, the State Legislature adopted the Open Public Meetings Act to ensure that public officials’ actions and deliberations are conducted openly. The following year, in 1972, voters adopted the core provisions of the Public Records Act in order to uphold government’s responsibility to maintain public records and make them available to the public.
Open government benefits everyone — community members and government officials alike. Not only do city and town officials work tirelessly to uphold open government laws, they also promote open dialogue and engaged participation in government. This is the key to building and sustaining strong communities.
Sunshine Week, held March 13-19, provided an opportunity to celebrate some of the untold stories for open and substantive engagement in governing. Every day, city and town officials and employees work with constituents to plan and build vibrant communities that reflect local priorities. Open and transparent government that engages community members beyond what is prescribed in law is the cornerstone to a successful community ordinance, program, initiative, or plan. This includes comprehensive planning, budgeting, police-community relations, downtown revitalization, environmental protection, infrastructure improvement projects, and so much more.
Open government is not static — it didn’t start in the 1970s — and it will not improve without accommodating changes that reflect our evolving communities and advancing technologies.
When Washington’s public records and open meetings laws passed decades ago, typewriters were the norm. Now cities and towns use modern technology to provide a wealth of information and opportunities for community involvement. You can “like” your town on Facebook, follow your city on Twitter, stream a council meeting on your phone, access open data, file a building permit online, or provide feedback about a parks plan via dynamic surveying tools.
Moving into the future, cities and towns will continue to tackle challenges and work even harder to engage busy community members on their terms. They will also struggle to keep up with technological advances while operating within a legal framework that is four decades old. We must engage in discussions about open government that include transparency, as well as issues around cybersecurity and protecting privacy. We shouldn’t fear this kind of change — it’s simply a reality.
Too often cities, towns, and other public entities are only recognized when there is a suspected violation of open government laws. Let’s turn that tide. Let’s shed some much needed sunshine on the time and effort cities dedicate to engaging community members as active governing participants and upholding open government principles.
Paul Roberts is the president of the Association of Washington Cities and a City of Everett councilmember. Jim Restucci is vice president of AWC and a City of Sunnyside mayor.