EDITORIAL: A question of transparency

The word “transparency” seems to be getting tossed around quite a bit these days.

Most recently, the word popped up twice during a three-minute public comment at a Camas City Council meeting. The Camas resident was speaking to the Council and Camas’ newly elected mayor about an item on Camas’ list of 2020 legislative priorities: $35 million for replacing and widening the Camas Slough Bridge.

Camas resident John Ley, who has run for public office in the past, told the Council and mayor he was “outraged” after learning that funds formerly dedicated to the Slough Bridge widening had been shifted to repairs on Highway 14, from 164th Avenue to Interstate 205.

“The problem is one of transparency,” Ley said at the Dec. 2 city council meeting, adding that he understood the funding shift occurred after a private meeting between former Camas Mayor Scott Higgins and former Washougal Mayor Sean Guard and state legislators.

“It was not public to the citizens,” Ley said of this supposed meeting. “I think all the fair citizens of our city should have had input into that decision … in this era of new transparency, I hope we can have some very honest, open discussions and that people are involved when it comes to spending our money.”

Likely, this was the first the new Camas mayor, Barry McDonnell, had heard of this funding shift. He promised Ley he would look into it and get back to the Camas man.

Fortunately, McDonnell won’t have too far to look. Unlike the picture Ley painted of a closed-door, private meeting without any public knowledge until after-the-fact, the funding shift was covered by at least three media organizations, including this newspaper, before it took place.

On Jan. 5, 2017 — months before the decision was made to pull funds from the bridge to Highway 14 projects west of Camas — the Post-Record reported on the issue:

“The city also supports transferring $25 million for the West Camas Slough Bridge to fund a project on state Route 14, between I-205 and Southeast 164th Avenue,” the paper reported, adding that state Senator Ann Rivers was going to hold three town hall meetings throughout the county, including in Camas, later that week to discuss this and other legislative issues.

A few months later, on March 25, 2017, the Post-Record’s sister paper, the Columbian, published a more in-depth story about the possible funding shift with the headline “Sen. Rivers proposes more lanes on Highway 14: Republican aims to shift funding from Camas bridge replacement.”

The article said Rivers was “championing the effort” despite the fact that the project fell outside her 18th Legislative District and would take money from the Camas Slough Bridge.

“As someone who asks, ‘What does Southwest Washington need?’ rather than, ‘What does my district need?’ I knew which project would help both my district and our region more,” Rivers told the Columbian.

She added that she had heard from constituents through the 18th District that the Highway 14 improvements near 164th Avenue were more important to Camas and Washougal commuters than the Slough Bridge replacement, and that the only reason the Highway 14 project didn’t make it into the 2015 state transportation package Rivers voted “yes” on was because of then Sen. Don Benton’s “unwillingness to negotiate the package.”

Two months later, on May 3, 2017, KOIN reported that “the $25 million Washington legislators set aside to widen the Camas Slough Bridge could be headed a few miles west,” and quoted officials, including Sen. Rivers, and Camas-Washougal residents who all said they believed widening Highway 14 between I-205 and 164th Avenue would be more impactful to commuters in Camas, Washougal and East Vancouver.

Anyone who cared about this issue when it was being proposed had ample opportunities to contact Sen. Rivers or the mayors in Camas and Washougal and urge them to reconsider. It seems that officials were being transparent in their quest to shift the funds away from the bridge throughout the months leading up to the decision. The problem for those upset by the funding shift wasn’t caused by a lack of transparency — the news was out there and Sen. Rivers was hosting town halls.

That’s not to say that local government officials are always being transparent. We still have a long way to go when it comes to learning the true financial backers behind many candidates and local issues — and it can be costly and time-consuming for journalists to dig into emails, private social media messages and other forms of communication between officials.

But transparency is critical to a democracy and should not be used as a political football. We should all be “pro transparency” for all government officials — as well as private industry leaders and influential nonprofits — all the time, not just when it suits our own needs.