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When those hardy pioneers rolled off the Oregon Trail and into the territory that became the state of Washington, they carried with them a populist, reformer’s spirit that endures today.

Those settlers “wanted government to be accountable to the public,’’ said the Honorable Gerry Alexander, former state Supreme Court justice.

Some of the credit for those expectations goes to a breed of tough, activist women, historians say. “You had to be a real strong lady to come west on a wagon train on the Oregon Trail, cook, care for the kids and carry your load,” said John Hughes, chief historian for the state’s Legacy Project. “Women played a key role in campaigning for more open government.’’

That legacy still reverberates in Olympia under the dome of the Capitol building, the jewel of one of this country’s most beautiful state capital campuses. It’s a legacy that found voice in a young wife and mother who, new to the state in 1970, soon found herself an unpaid activist lobbying for public disclosure. Jolene Unsoeld went on to become a state legislator and member of Congress. But she’s best known here for her grassroots leadership role in a 1972 campaign to pass Initiative 276, a citizen-driven movement that created the state Public Disclosure Commission.

When Initiative 276 was enacted and codified the following year as the landmark Public Records Act, it contained provisions regarding campaign finance, lobbying and personal financial affairs reporting. The statute also required that government agencies publish blueprints on how the public might obtain information and describe procedures for protecting records from damage or disorganization.

Today Unsoeld, 80, is modest about her role, crediting the League of Women Voters for much of the success. Common Cause was a major player as well. But Unsoeld did more than push for disclosure: She followed the money. “I monitored all the incoming filings by legislative candidates,’’ Unsoeld said from her home in Olympia. That meant poring over the required documents and compiling the data on 4 by 5-inch index cards, all on her own time and without pay.

“You would see a bunch of contributions coming in from one address. I would go to see what was at that address,’’ Unsoeld said. She discovered donor committees with misleading titles and committees with different names tied to a single source. Unsoeld summarized her findings in a booklet titled “Who Gave? Who Got? How Much?” that she produced on her home Underwood typewriter. Pretty soon people started paying attention.

Thanks to Unsoeld and folks like her, transparency standards remain relatively high in this picturesque — and damp — state of 6.8 million still-hardy souls. And lots of information is available. So Washington is a winner in the State Integrity Investigation conducted by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. Washington earned a letter grade of B- and a numerical score of 83, ranking it third among the 50 states.

Grassroots movement takes off

“We were one of the first states in the nation to bring such openness to campaign finances,” said Mike Oakland, editorial page editor of The Olympian. “We wrote campaign finance stories from the get-go.’’ It wasn’t easy. Reports arrived via mail, took days to process and contributions had to be manually tabulated. Politicians kicked and screamed.

But a precedent was set. The Public Records Act put in place a cornerstone for open government and whetted the public appetite for more openness. Its purpose was eloquently stated: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.’’

There are numerous examples of this demand for and expectation of open government. Ethics laws restrict state employees and elected officials from using their positions for private gain; campaign disclosure laws regulate contributions and expenditures; the Open Public Meetings Act requires transparency and accessibility as well. Each board or office charged with investigating possible ethics violations or other improprieties is empowered to initiate investigations. Citizen complaints drive the system. If no one notices, if no one files a complaint, there is little likelihood of enforcement,but complaints are indeed investigated. There are processes in place and several portals for launching investigations. Findings are public and penalties may be handed out, although critics contend they are too often suspended.

Further examples of openness abound. Washington’s judiciary at all levels are elected directly by the citizenry, a constitutional dictate that Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers, firmly believes maintains integrity. Thompson is adamant that “the government you get is based on the judiciary you elect. If you have an honest and forthright judiciary you have an honest and forthright legislature, because they are accountable to that judiciary.’’

Washington maintains a part-time legislature, but committee meetings and floor action are open and often televised on TVW, the state’s public affairs TV network. The public can sign up to testify at hearings, although critics contend that testimony doesn’t carry much weight with lawmakers.

The state budget and economic climate are subject to microscopic examination throughout the year. Washington is one of the few states that has a quasi-independent revenue forecast council. Each quarter, three economic and revenue forecasts are disseminated — an official forecast and two unofficial forecasts, one based on optimistic projections, the other on pessimistic projections. There are numerous state government publications each year dedicated to revenues, spending and the economy. Additionally, the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report from the state’s Office of Financial Management assesses the state’s activities and balances for the fiscal year. Once the budget is enacted, a “Citizen’s Guide to the Budget’’ is published as a non-technical overview, though some reporters claim that budget information is too technical, even too voluminous, and lacks context that an average person can understand.

In a state that Microsoft calls home, it is perhaps not surprising that information and opportunities for citizen participation are extensive, for those who know where and how to look for it. One widely acclaimed success story is the state’s redistricting commission site at www.redistricting.wa.gov. Easily navigable and including background, third party proposals and an opportunity to draw your own maps, the site affords ready transparency and accessibility. In addition, the state’s Website careers.wa.gov guides candidates to open jobs. Likewise, the Washington Department of Enterprise Services provides detailed online information on state contracting opportunities and the bidding process.

An uncertain future

Today, though, Washington’s bedrock of accountability is threatened on multiple fronts.

What’s happening to the Public Records Act is but one example. Initially there were 10 exemptions to the law, mainly regarding real estate transactions, personnel issues and matters of national security. Today there are more than 300 exemptions, including those state lawmakers constructed to keep much of their own correspondence out of the public eye. In addition, members of the judiciary consider themselves exempt under the constitution’s separation of powers, because the courts were not specifically addressed in the PRA.Most recently, Governor Christine Gregoire has cited executive privilege in refusing to release certain documents. She won her argument in Superior Court and the lawsuit challenging her now moves to the state Supreme Court.

In 2007, the legislature created the Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee to review Public Records Act exemptions and make recommendations. The panelwas charged to “provide a recommendation as to whether the exemption should be continued without modification, modified, scheduled for sunset review at a future date, or terminated.’’ But the committee has done little, thanks to its political makeup and lack of staffing and resources, and its continuing existence is now threatened by politics and proposed cuts that are part of an ongoing state budget crisis.

Dwindling appropriations mean the state Public Disclosure Commission has fewer staffers available to do even a random sampling of campaign expenditures and lobbyist filings. Financial asset disclosure forms required annually of elected officials, state executive officers and members of many boards and commissions rely on the honor system. Audits are not required by statute and are done only when a complaint triggers a probe.

Critics say the financial asset disclosure forms are lacking in detail with categories that are overly broad. For example, an asset is identified by the same dollar code whether valued at $100,000 or several million dollars. Andrew Garber, who covers state politics for The Seattle Times, considers the forms worthless. “You could be middle class or extremely wealthy, considering the range,” he said. “It’s hard to tell how much lawmakers make or from where.’’

Others complain that the information, though technically public, is hard to access. Obtaining information such as financial asset disclosure forms requires the requester to jump through several hoops. The Public Disclosure Commission, custodian of those forms, cites privacy issues. Lori Anderson, communications officer for the PDC, says the commission “has chosen not to make the personal financial statements available online because they contain sensitive information about the filer” — such as addresses and names of children. Generally, she says, the information will be sent by email on the day of the request.

Budget cutbacks and shenanigans

Reduced staffing because of budget cuts is having an impact on many types of disclosure or ethics investigations, and Governor Gregoire has warned of more cuts ahead. The Executive Ethics Board, responsible for investigating most complaints of ethics violations, has lost an investigator position through budget cuts, leaving the board only one investigator. The executive director helps out when she can. The Public Disclosure Commission also has fewer investigators. According to the PDC’s annual report for fiscal year 2011, five full-time positions in the compliance division were reduced to two full-time posts and three half-time posts, with one halftime post left unfilled. The report notes: “These staff reductions impacted the scope of planned audit work, group enforcement, and the timeliness of completing existing compliance work, including investigations.’’

Positions have also been collapsed in the office of the state auditor, which, although it has no enforcement authority, manages a whistleblower program for state employees; a program for the investigation of suspected fraud in state and local government; and a hotline open to all citizens to recommend ways to improve efficiency. The auditor’s office has absorbed the demands of the hotline with existing staff. Every caller who leaves contact information receives a response within five days, but staff focus is on the “big, bad and ugly,’’ said Mindy Chambers, communications officer.

A citizens’ initiative overwhelmingly approved by the electorate in 2005 empowered the state auditor to conduct performance audits in addition to his mandate for financial audits of state and local agencies. Voters tapped a dedicated source of funding for the performance audits out of sales taxes, but the legislature has siphoned it, moving some of the money each year into the state’s general fund, according to Chambers. The lesson is troubling: Even a dedicated funding stream is no guarantee.

Critics argue the laws on the books regulating campaign contributions and expenditures are a façade. “Money gets spent one way or another regardless of the limit,’’ said Toby Nixon, president, Washington Coalition for Open Government Contributors can get around limits through independent expenditures. He contends that more detailed and immediate disclosure is the best regulation. Remove limits; put everything on the record and let voters decide. Jason Mercier, director, center for government reform at the Washington Policy Center, says penalties after the fact don’t undo the damage but same day reporting could put the brakes on.

Transparency in judicial records is also an issue. The Washington State Supreme Court has released a proposed new rule on records access to fill a perceived gap in existing state laws and court rules, which do not specifically address public access to judicial branch administrative records. The rule would delineate procedures to obtain records, exemptions and penalties for non-compliance. However Nixon of the open government coalition argues that the proposed measure has too many exemptions and no penalties.

Civic responsibility

Despite constraints, Washington in many ways is still a proggressive model for other states. The mechanisms for accountability are in place. But more and more, experts here say, it’s up to citizens to exercise them, in part because the mainstream press is shrinking. Some three dozen reporters covered state government during a legislative session 20 years ago, but today the total is just 6-8 fulltime journalists. “It’s up to the people to monitor their government,” said Nixon.

Perhaps never more so than today.

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