Opinion

Open government failed our region after WaMu crash | Guest column

Sept. 25, 2008, was just another Thursday in Seattle — until the federal government orchestrated the largest bank failure in U.S. history.

Late that afternoon, officials with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the former Office of Thrift Supervision strode through the lobby of the Seattle headquarters of Washington Mutual and entered an elevator.

On the 32nd floor they walked into the boardroom, where they presented the bank’s directors with legal papers that said the federal government had seized and sold WaMu’s banking subsidiaries.

As a result, thousands of people lost their jobs, investors lost billions of dollars and greater Seattle lost a corporate citizen that helped finance the rebuilding of the city after the great fire of 1889.

Without a doubt, it was one of the most consequential federal actions in our region’s history. Did our federal government act wisely? Even three-plus years later, citizens have too little information. Federal regulators issued a short press release, then hid their remaining information about WaMu behind a heavy curtain of secrecy. The FDIC responded to public records requests by releasing hundreds of documents that were almost entirely blacked out.

The public’s inability to evaluate their government’s action underscores the constant threat to one of our nation’s grandest ideas, the concept of open government. For more than 200 years, Americans have been part of a great experiment in self-rule based on laws. It’s an ambitious civic model that’s idealistic and hopeful and at odds with much of human history. But it works.

It doesn’t work well, however, if a key ingredient is missing: informed citizens. They need to know what their government is doing. They need to know whether it is operating efficiently, fairly and in their best interest.

South King County residents can participate in a free public forum about open government. The League of Women Voters of Seattle/King County and the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG) are co-sponsors of a two-hour forum, which begins at 6:30 p.m. April 18 in Room 9 of the Kent Senior Activity Center, 600 E. Smith St.

The centerpiece of the forum is a panel discussion that will be introduced by Mike Reitz, general counsel of The Freedom Foundation, and moderated by Sam Pace, a Kent resident and WCOG treasurer. The scheduled panelists are:

• State Sen. Pam Roach (R-Auburn).

• Toby Nixon, WCOG president and a Kirkland City Council member.

• Jerry Handfield, Washington state archivist.

• Tim Ford, an assistant state attorney general and open-government ombudsman.

The diversity of the panelists reflects the inclusiveness of the coalition. Open government advocates are united by a powerful idea: that civic life matters, and that government should be transparent and accountable to its citizens. The future of our bold experiment in self rule depends on it.

 

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