OPMA violations should draw steeper penalties

Today is day nine of the Washington State legislature’s 60-day session. Among the many issues these elected leaders will be discussing, debating and voting on is a bill that if approved would add some very necessary teeth to an existing law that as it currently stands provides for minimal penalties for violations of the state’s open public meetings act.

The OPMA requires open meetings of public-agency governing bodies such as city councils, county commissions, school boards and many state boards.

The current penalty for violating the act is $100 against each member of a governing body who attends a meeting where action is knowingly taken. Fees must be paid by the violators, not the public agency with which they are associated. The penalty has been the same for nearly 45 years, since 1971 when the legislation was originally enacted. It clearly needs to be updated so that elected officials get a clear message that they will be held accountable for violations of this important law that protects the public’s critical right to know.

House Bill 2353, and its companion Senate Bill 6171, proposed by Washington State Attorney Gen. Bob Ferguson and sponsored by Rep. Sam Hunt — D-Olympia, aims to increase the penalty to $500 for a first-time violation. It would also enact a new $1,000 repeat violator penalty for a subsequent knowing violations.

According to Ferguson, other states, including Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, Rhode Island and Virginia, already have higher penalties for open meetings violations than Washington. New Jersey has enhanced penalties for repeat violators.

“Open government is vital to an informed democracy,” Ferguson stated. “When the law requires an open meeting, yet officials knowingly close the door on the public, they must be held accountable with meaningful penalties.”

Government accountability and transparency needs to be a priority for all elected officials, in all situations. More stringent penalties for violation of the OPMA is one very important step in achieving that goal.