Opinion

Executive privilege a tricky trap | Rich Elfers

Gov. Chris Gregoire is under pressure for claiming executive privilege. The issues involve withholding of emails and internal documents on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, medical marijuana laws, and criminal pardons, to name three. Being a regular reader of The News Tribune, I have seen editorials stating the importance of governmental transparency. As a former Enumclaw City Council member, I have mixed feelings about the issue: it’s difficult to balance the need for government accountability with the need to be able to speak the truth.

The reason for encouraging transparency is that government officials will be forced to act more ethically and honestly if they know their private thoughts and emails might eventually be put under the microscope of public scrutiny. Public disclosure laws are meant to make officials more accountable. I am very much in favor of open and honest government and accountability.

There is another side to this issue, however, that elected officials do not discuss because of political risk. How many of us think out loud in unguarded moments? In a re-election campaign, ones’ opponent might use any statement and random thoughts to argue that the incumbent is unethical, or showing favoritism to friends and associates, true or not. As we all know, truth often goes out the window during political campaigns. Political spin-doctoring rules. That’s why few elected officials can be candid when dealing with politically inflammatory issues, except in private.

The media, like The News Tribune, have come out strongly in favor of transparency, but they, too, have an agenda. Transparency means the media can write lurid stories using internal emails gained from the Public Records Act to attract readers, sell more papers and thus pay their salaries. The media is not without self-interest on this issue. They stand to gain from more openness as much as politicians stand to lose from too much transparency.

From a former elected official’s point of view, there is much to lose from too much information reaching the public. During the last few years while I was still in office there was a movement on the state level to pass a law requiring local governments to record executive sessions. Privately, I was very much against this move. If government officials have to watch every word they say in a secret session, candor and honesty go out the window.

In other words, open, frank discussions will not occur because politicians will have to calculate whether they can afford to speak out or not. Too much transparency is as much a danger to good government as too little.

While legislatures can pass laws, it’s impossible to deal with the nuances that are necessary to find the tension between an open and accountable government and one where elected officials are afraid to be honest.

As I write this column, I’m weighing my own emotions and thoughts, calculating like the politician I once was, that some day some future potential political opponent will use my words in this article to proclaim that I am against transparency in government. On the other hand, I wonder if some day, if I continue to write a newspaper column, whether I will succumb to the media writer’s self interest, wanting as much transparency as I can get, good government not withstanding.

It’s very possible Gov. Gregoire is considering these vagaries as she claims executive privilege in regard to internal memos about the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the medical marijuana law and criminal pardons. Being an elected official requires the skill of a tightrope walker where any misstep can bring political oblivion. I understand her moral dilemma and, to paraphrase what a previous president used to say, “I feel her pain.”

 

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