Executive privilege keeps public in dark

The Freedom Foundation points out executive privilege isn't one of the more than 300 exemptions in the state's Public Records Act.

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Gov. Chris Gregoire is wielding what she believes to be a shield that will keep the prying eyes of the public out of some things she and her staff are doing. This powerful shield is called "executive privilege."

For some reason, people in power seem to think that phrase will make everything all right and people will simply nod knowingly and look the other way.

The Freedom Foundation hasn't been so easily cowed. It says Gregoire has invoked executive privilege at least 500 times in the last four years. However, the foundation points out in its lawsuit, executive privilege isn't one of the more than 300 exemptions in the Washington Public Records Act.

The act says: "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."

The governor's office claims executive privilege is inherent in the separation of powers in the constitution. Besides, it says, it needs to do things secretly so policy advisers will speak freely.

"We have made the decision and have tried to protect the candor that helps to ensure good information and decision-making, while also releasing portions of the documents or releasing them at a certain point in time when we feel that release doesn't threaten those core values," Narda Pierce, general counsel for the governor, told The Associated Press.

The constitution doesn't give the executive branch the power to keep secrets from the public.

Gregoire is correct that it is easier to work without people looking over your shoulder. There is a freedom associated with knowing you won't be held accountable for anything you say or do. It makes it more efficient. But government wasn't designed to be done behind closed doors. Transparency trumps efficiency when doing the public's business. People have the right to know the whole story, not just what the governor wants to release, when she wants to release it.

Waiting until the "release doesn't threaten those core values" actually threatens the principles of a representative government. It is more akin to a monarchy in which the king pats his subjects on the head and assures them he knows what is best for them.

The governor has more than 300 possible exemptions to keep these records secret. If none of them apply, then she should bend to the will of the people. Or she can always propose legislation that would create executive privilege.

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