Voters shouldn't be fooled by state lawmakers repeating debunked talking points about their recent attempt to squirm out of following the state's Public Records Act.
Nearly six months after citizens rose up against Washington lawmakers’ attempt to exempt themselves from the state’s Public Records Act, many legislators still don’t seem to get what the big deal was.
Or, equally likely, they are just playing dumb to dodge tough questions from voters on the campaign trail.
Take state Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds, who recently wrote an Op-Ed for the Shoreline Area News titled, “Let’s talk about public disclosure.”
OK, senator. Let’s talk.
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That was the bill lawmakers passed to permanently seal off access to their past emails, calendars, disciplinary reports and other working documents — only a month after a trial court ruled the Legislature had been illegally withholding those records from the public.
The measure also would have created separate (and much more limited) rules for what documents lawmakers must disclose in the future, effectively letting them withhold substantially more records than most other government officials.
Yet Chase, who represents the 32nd Legislative District, maintains the media and the people got the whole thing wrong. Based on early results from Tuesday’s primary election, Chase looks as if she will face rival Democrat Jesse Salomon on the ballot in November.
“Unfortunately, some mischaracterized the bill, claiming that it created more secrecy around legislative records. In fact, it would have created greater transparency …” Chase writes.
This skewed thinking, while oft repeated by lawmakers, ignores the Jan. 19 Thurston County Superior Court ruling that said lawmakers had been violating the state’s Public Records Act for several years by not releasing their communications, calendars and other internal documents.
In other words, the existing law required much more transparency than SB 6617 would have established. The bill would have dramatically limited the release of public documents, compared to what the court ordered.
The Legislature is now appealing the Thurston County ruling, which came in response to a lawsuit brought by 10 news organizations, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times. A task force of media representatives, lawmakers and open-government advocates has been formed to further discuss the public-records issue, but the group has yet to meet.
Unlike Chase claims in her piece, the phenomenon of state lawmakers thinking they are above the law is a relatively recent one. Until 1995 (or maybe the mid-2000s — for some reason the Legislature’s lawyers can’t seem to decide in court briefs) the Legislature considered itself fully subject to the government-transparency rules that voters approved in 1972.
Chase further asserts the legislative secrecy measure was needed to shield whistleblowers, as well as to protect constituents’ private information, such their as Social Security numbers and health details.
But the Public Records Act allows withholding of this information already — and Chase knows it. In a recent interview, Chase pointed to the 600 or so existing exemptions in the Public Records Act to make the upside-down argument that, since so much information can already be withheld under the law, exempting the Legislature from most of the remaining rules should also be fine.
“I don’t see anyone going after those 600 exemptions, you know, to open them up,” Chase told The Seattle Times editorial board June 28.
” … What’s in the 600 (exemptions)?” she continued. “A lot of personal information about people’s finances, about their health, their family situation.” She said most of the sensitive things constituents write to lawmakers can be withheld using the law’s current provisions.
While Chase’s distortions may be some of the most blatant, she isn’t the only one repeating debunked talking points about the public-records bill.
Several incumbent lawmakers recently told The Seattle Times editorial board that without some type of emergency legislative action, each of the state’s 147 legislators would have needed to appoint his or her own public-records officer to sit around for 30 hours per week, solely to field public-records requests.
” … I’m saying, OK, we’re a part time Legislature, and I’m going to have to do all of these things to comply,” state Rep. Mark Hargrove, R-Covington, told the editorial board July 12. “Is this really reasonable?”
All this shows is that many lawmakers still haven’t read the January ruling, in which Thurston County Judge Chris Lanese specifically rejected this argument. In fact, Lanese pointedly said that lawmakers could pool their resources — that is, assign the same person to handle all of their public-records requests.
Still, the spin persists.
Citizens should not allow themselves to be schooled by lawmakers who either don’t understand how the Public Records Act works or are willfully misrepresenting it on the campaign trail.
Lawmakers should take the time to read up on their own court case before lecturing the media — and the public — about what the judge’s ruling and the law actually say.