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Open and accountable

When it comes to two important aspects of the ethics bills under consideration at the Legislature, cooler heads seem to have prevailed. If the bills become law, the Independent Legislative Ethics Commission now would be subject to the open meetings act, and its records would not be completely secret. That's good news.

The Senate's concessions regarding open meetings and open records were important steps in the right direction. They show that prominent state senators understand the need to weigh the public's interest against the possibility that reputations could be destroyed through frivolous charges.

In its original form, SB136 would have exempted the Ethics Commission from the state's open meetings law. SB138 would have kept its records secret. The public never would have known when the commission met, even if that meeting was held to discuss only its budget or other administrative matters. If the commission found evidence of violations and passed those on to an ethics committee, that committee also could have proceeded in secret.

Now, if the bills pass, that entire process would be subject to the open meetings law. This does not mean deliberations would be open to the public, nor should they. The current open meetings act allows meetings to be closed for many reasons, including to discuss "the character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of an individual." But at least the public would know those meetings were being held. And at the end of the year, a record of the commission's deliberations would be made public in general terms, without disclosing the names of the people involved. This is reasonable, considering substantive charges eventually would be made public.

We still have broader concerns about the bills, especially the part that would automatically dismiss a charge if any part of it is leaked to the public. Everything in these bills concerns a political process. Leaks will happen. Any politician under investigation easily could arrange for such a thing in order to have substantive charges dismissed.

Of course, at this point, no one knows how the ethics debate will end. An initiative is still circulating, several weeks from a deadline requiring a set number of signatures representative of 10 percent of the voters in 26 of the state's 29 Senate districts. (Ultimately, the Legislature has power to set any rules it wishes, but it might be difficult politically to override a vote of the people.)

But whatever process wins out needs to be open and accountable. To do otherwise would be ironic, considering the entire reason for tough ethics laws is to gain the trust of the public by showing the system to be fair and accountable.

The Senate now has passed these bills. We urge the House to do likewise. We also urge lawmakers to remove the section that would void any charges leaked to the public.