Gov. Jay Inslee, in fulfilling a campaign promise not to invoke executive privilege to block the release of public records, has taken an important stand for open government.
Inslee’s predecessor, Chris Gregoire, claimed the Governor’s Office was not bound by state law requiring disclosure of public documents. The Governor’s Office cited executive privilege at least 500 times in Gregoire’s tenure as grounds for withholding records.
The Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based libertarian think tank, disputed Gregoire’s reasoning, taking the matter to the State Supreme Court. At issue were six specific documents on a variety of subjects, including the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, medical marijuana and criminal pardons.
The attorney for the state argued executive privilege is inherent in the constitutional guarantee of separation of powers and is necessary so advisers can talk candidly.
Perhaps that is the case with the U.S. Constitution, but the dispute involves state — not federal — government. It is the state constitution that’s germane to the dispute. Executive privilege is not mentioned in the state constitution.
It is understandable why elected public officials want to control the release of documents. There are a variety of reasons, from gaining a political advantage to preventing embarrassment.
If a governor wants to withhold documents from the public, the specific exemption of the more than 300 allowed by law must be cited.
During the fall campaign, Inslee and his opponent, Rob McKenna, indicated they wouldn’t invoke executive privilege.
“I would not intend to exercise executive privilege unless or until it was delineated by the Legislature or a vote of the people,” Inslee said last year. “What we’re talking about is the public trust in the system, and that should be jealously guarded. … Close calls go in my book to public disclosure.”
The Freedom Foundation issued a news release last week lauding Inslee for keeping his word. Inslee provided six different sets of documents Gregoire had previously refused to divulge.
The Foundation said the material — memos for the governor concerning the Braam foster-child legal settlement, unemployment insurance, Puget Sound clean up and options for liquor-store expansions — did not appear controversial.
The Freedom Foundation should be commended for taking on this fight for transparent government.
And Inslee should be praised for taking a stand in favor of open government and, perhaps more importantly, backing up his words with quick action.