It is time for a change. Tukwila public officials, both elected and appointed, are discouraged from communicating with Tukwila residents through blogs like Facebook, Tukwila Talk and Tukwila Reporter blogs. A memo issued by the city attorney a few years ago reflected this point of view. It has been the implicit, if not explicit policy since then. This does not serve the public interest.
The city could fairly point out the City Council meetings and council coffee chats. The council meeting format does not accommodate interactive discussions. Say your piece in five minutes and sit down. The coffee chats are good but there is no public record of the discussions so residents may learn from them. They happen infrequently, are usually poorly attended and often by the same residents. Human nature does not change. Most residents simply choose not to come to these meetings. So what do we do?
I recently attended an Open Meetings and Public Records Laws Forum co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Coalition for Open Government, www.washingtoncog.org. Among the panelists were Toby Nixon – former state legislator and now Kirkland City Council member, along with Greg Overstreet and Tim Ford, respectively, former and current assistant attorney general for Government Accountability and Open Government Ombudsman. In an answer for my question about blogging, the panel could not think of any legal reason to be unwilling to participate in blog discussions on legislative matters. Blog discussions can occur without violating OPMA (Open Public Meetings Act). It was pointed out that a public official does not surrender his or her first amendment rights when entering public service. Toby Nixon said that he blogs with the local Kirkland newspaper.
OPMA is not intended to deter public discussions. It is intended to protect the public interest with some do’s and don’ts.
I encourage the city administration and the council to review OPMA and the Attorney General interpretation of OPMA. The latter may be found at www.atg.wa.gov/OpenGovernment/InternetManual/Chapter3.aspx. I encourage the administration and council to work with the city attorney to come up with some simple guidelines and then open up the lines of communication. The best approach would be to create individual blogs on Tukwila Reporter. Facebook and Tukwila Talk are other options.
Avoiding blogs and other forms of communication in which there can be a 24/7 exchange of ideas on legislative matters (not quasi-judicial) is like refusing to drive a car because one fears making a driving error and getting a ticket. It is time for a change.