Episode 48: Keeping government open and transparent with Toby Nixon

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Some children dream of being a firefighter or star athlete.

After an early civics lesson in school, Toby Nixon knew he was interested in government.

That early interest has turned into a life focused on public service and protecting the processes of government.

Nixon was re-elected to the city council in Kirkland, Wash., in the fall of 2019, a position he’s held since 2012. Among the many current and former public-service roles Nixon has taken on, he has been a fire commissioner and a member of the Washington State House of Representatives from 2002-2006 where he was ranking member of the committee which has responsibility for overseeing Washington’s open government and election laws.

And his day job with Microsoft includes serving as chairman of the board of directors of Bluetooth Special Interest Group, the Kirkland-based international organization that develops standards for Bluetooth technology.

But of all his efforts, defending and watch-dogging open government holds a special place in Nixon’s heart.

He is the 2012 inductee to “Heroes of the 50 States: The State Open Government Hall of Fame” by the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2006, he received the “Freedom’s Light Award” from Washington Newspaper Publishers Association in recognition of his work to protect and advance First Amendment interests in Washington and he’s a member of the Washington State Historical Records Advisory Board.

And, Nixon is president of the board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, a group that advocates for the people’s right to access government information. The independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization works through the courts and the Legislature to defend and strengthen Washington’s open government laws.

“Washington’s public records act, Initiative 276, came into existence, by public initiative, in 1972,” Nixon says. “It got a 72 percent favorable vote, one of the highest ever for an initiative in the state.”

The new law went into effect in 1973 and it was immediately attacked, Nixon says.

“The original group that sponsored the initiative was called the Coalition for Open Government,” Nixon says, adding that after a few years, “That organization kind of shut down.”

The original law included ten exemptions, but by 2002, there were more than 300 exemptions.

“A group of folks got together and decided we needed to defend the law against the courts and the Legislature. So, the Washington Coalition for Open Government was formed,” Nixon says. “I joined the board in 2005, three years in.”

Nixon says Initiative 276 came forward during the Watergate era when the public was focused on the need to ensure transparency in government.

The mission of the coalition, Nixon says, is a group of people who may not have very much else in common, but they all recognize the importance of government transparency and the preservation of democracy.

“People assume we are a conservative organization,” Nixon says. “It’s really just a watchdog group, no matter who is in charge. We are really very much a non-partisan group. We don’t agree on much besides transparency is important.”

As busy as he is, Nixon says he’s still looking for ways to learn and grow.

“I like to read about how to make government better,” Nixon says. “You have to be passionate about learning new things.”

Episode length: 1:09:27

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