The Washington Legislature has launched a sneak attack on the state’s Public Records Act, a display of a malignant form of bipartisanship — Republican and Democratic legislators united in keeping the public in the dark about what they are doing. The irony is that the bill’s clandestine journey through Olympia — culminating with overwhelming Senate and House approval on Friday — proves why government needs stronger, not weaker, public records laws.
Senate Bill 6617, introduced by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, popped up suddenly last week, deep into a short 60-day session. There were no committee hearings or votes. It has an emergency clause, which means if signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, it would become effective immediately and not be subject to a public referendum.
On Friday, it was rammed through the Senate on a 41-7 vote and House with 83-14 approval. All Yakima Valley representatives voted in favor with the exception of Walla Walla Republican Sen. Maureen Walsh, who was absent. Walsh’s 16th District includes Prosser.
Its main intent is to stop the release of records being sought in a lawsuit filed by a coalition of media groups including The Seattle Times, parent company of the Yakima Herald-Republic. The suit was filed after the news organizations last year filed requests for emails, text messages, calendars, disciplinary files and other records from all 147 Washington lawmakers, including any documentation of sexual harassment complaints against House and Senate members.
A Thurston County Superior Court judge in January ruled that records held by individual Washington state legislators are subject to public disclosure, just as they are for local governments, state agencies and the governor’s office. The Legislature has appealed. Meanwhile, the office of Attorney General Bob Ferguson has sided with transparency and determined that state lawmakers are subject to the same rules of disclosure that cover other elected officials and employees at state agencies.
Not content to fight the public in court with the public’s money — lawmakers have spent more than $100,000 of taxpayer funds already — legislators now seek to remove the legislative branch from the Public Records Act. The “compromise” measure — as some call it — would allow release of some correspondence, “specified information” from lawmaker calendars, and final disciplinary reports as of July 1. In addition to applying retroactively to the records sought in the lawsuit, the bill would remove the option of challenging a records request denial in court. Instead, legislative committees would make that call, and their rulings would be final. We can guess how well that would work. Quite simply, lawmakers who supported this bill want to put the fox in charge of the henhouse.
While correspondence with register lobbyists could be disclosed, communication with businesses and other special-interest “constituents” would be private.
At this point, after overwhelming approval by the state Senate and House, the final chance for stopping it — or at least slowing it — lies with a veto by Inslee, who has generally a solid record on transparency regarding his records. But he was noncommittal on SB 6617 and hinted that a measure that passes with a legislative supermajority wouldn’t be worth the trouble of a veto, given the likelihood of a legislative override.
That may be, but forcing the Legislature to override his veto would keep the issue in public view, generating comments and raising awareness about its impact. It would provide time for constituents to weigh in — there were no hearings, remember — and force legislators to justify their votes. And last year’s supermajority approval of a tax cut for some state manufacturers didn’t dissuade Inslee from vetoing that measure; the business community is more than happy to remind him of that fact.
The Public Records Act arose out of Initiative 276, which won 72 percent of the votes back in 1972. I-276’s preamble reads in part, “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.” With SB 6617, legislators are claiming they do know better than the public what we should know about public business.
The Legislature could do the right thing and make itself subject to all provisions of the Public Records Act and the Open Meetings Act. Instead, it is taking a backroom approach that serves only to heighten public distrust of government. The people got it right in 1972; the state Attorney General’s Office and a Thurston County judge are getting it right in 2018. The Legislature is getting it wrong, leaving constituents to wonder what it is about public business that legislators really want to hide.
–Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Frank Purdy.
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