Monday, October 12, 2009
Government officials have a duty to conduct business in the open. It is, after all, the people's government.
And fortunately for the people of the Walla Walla Valley, most local government officials are committed to an open, transparent government.
Yet, even officials with the best of intentions can find themselves violating the state's laws regarding open public meetings and open records. Blame our ever-changing technology.
The advent of e-mail -- followed by Internet-powered social networks such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter -- has made it easy for public officials to instantly communicate with the public and each other.
So, if the seven members of a city council were to discuss city business in cyberspace -- shooting messages back and forth until a consensus is reached -- did a public meeting take place?
Absolutely. Yet, it's likely those involved didn't consider they were breaking the law when they started firing off the e-mails.
And that's exactly why the Washington State Coalition for Open Government conducts forums across the state aimed at helping public officials, news organizations and citizens understand the complexities of open government laws.
A forum was held last week at Walla Walla Community College that drew at least 40 people. Many local public officials -- including the sheriff, the county clerk, county auditor, county prosecutor and city council members -- were there for the two-hour presentation on how open-meeting and open-record laws are applied.
These officials ,as well as those who work in government service, those who volunteer to serve on boards and commissions and a number of private citizens, asked questions about the laws and then discussed their experiences. It was an enlightening experience for many as the experiences of one official or citizen resulted in new insights for many, particularly when it comes to rapidly changing technology.
It's too bad not every local official was in attendance, but a significant number were there.
That's heartening as it shows a real commitment by these public servants to make sure the people have access to their government.