Thankfully, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed SB 6617, but the work in keeping lawmakers’ records available for public review is far from over.
In the wake of Gov. Jay Inslee’s veto of Senate Bill 6617, legislators across the state have been furiously backpedaling and apologizing for the process by which it was adopted — from introduction to the governor’s desk in under 48 hours with no public hearing or debate. Despite this decidedly opaque process, they claim the bill would have been a significant improvement in transparency.
They’re wrong. Here’s why.
Legislators say they’ve always claimed not to be covered by the public records part of the Public Disclosure Act and subsequently by the Public Records Act. But proponents and opponents of Initiative 276, passed by a 72 percent vote in 1972, understood that it would cover all state and local government. Legislators never questioned that they’re covered by the campaign finance, personal finance and lobbyist disclosure parts of I-276; it is disingenuous at best to suggest that the public records part of the same initiative was not also intended to cover them. Why would legislators have attempted to amend the PDA and PRA multiple times over the decades to exclude their records, if it never covered them in the first place?
Legislators claim that if their records were publicly available they each would have to hire a public records officer and keep their offices open 30 hours a week to respond to in-person records requests.
But the Public Records Act allows any agency to appoint someone in another agency to handle their records requests. Representatives could appoint the chief clerk of the House as their records officer. Senators could appoint the secretary of the Senate. Problem solved! In fact, that is exactly what SB 6617 would have done, but a new law was not needed to do it.
Legislators claim SB 6617 would have expanded disclosure because they would have to release calendars, correspondence with lobbyists, and final disciplinary reports.
They fail to admit that most lobbyists put very little in email because they are paid to meet legislators in person, that legislative calendars could simply not mention the topic of meetings, and that it would be easy to cover up wrongdoing by never finalizing an investigation they wanted to bury. They neglect to say that the court already found that these records should have been released all along under current law, and that SB 6617 would have significantly narrowed disclosure from what the court said they should have been releasing.
The court said the Legislature violated the law. The response could have been to comply with the law. Instead, lawmakers chose to defy the court and the people by writing a bill in secret that would retroactively exempt themselves, and then jammed it through before objections could be raised.
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Constituents sometimes write legislators about sensitive personal matters. Those same constituents write to city council members, county commissioners, school board members, and other local officials in the same way. If legislators are concerned about constituent privacy, they should create a narrowly-crafted exemption within the Public Records Act that would apply to all correspondence with all agencies, not carve themselves out of the law.
Legislators claim that political opponents would harass them with records requests. Local officials have been dealing with that for 45 years, and local government hasn’t ground to a halt.
What legislators fail to mention is how SB 6617 would have addressed this — by allowing legislators to indefinitely delay responding to requests, by allowing them to reject requests by claiming to be too busy to respond, and by subjectively deeming requesters to be harassing them. And if a citizen requester objected to that delay or characterization, their only appeal would be to an obscure committee of the Legislature whose decisions would be final, with no further appeal to the courts. Who among us wouldn’t like to be able to judge our own compliance with the law? And even if the legislative committee found that their own law was broken, there would be no penalties, no reimbursement of attorney fees or costs, nothing. With no enforcement mechanism, the law might as well not exist.
Legislators should not be allowed off the hook by claiming they’re sorry. They should be held accountable to understand the bills they vote on and the policy they would enact.
Legislators say they will now undertake the open stakeholder process they should have before SB 6617 was introduced. The people of Washington must insist they do so sincerely, and not bluff their way through a sham process that tries to apply a veneer of transparency to the same bill with all its defects.