Washington state lawmakers should focus their public-records task force on ways to follow the state’s Public Records Act, rather than finding means to evade the law.
After failing to convince a trial court of their need for secrecy, Washington state lawmakers rightly were blasted in the court of public opinion when they took an outrageous vote in February to exempt themselves from the state’s Public Records Act.
As part of a deal that involved Gov. Jay Inslee vetoing that self-serving bill, lawmakers agreed to form a task force to work out some of their differences with the media coalition that sued them last year for withholding documents.
But rather than earnestly addressing how state lawmakers can start following the same transparency rules as most other government officials, most of the planned discussion topics seem to focus on justifying the Legislature’s current position: that it should have special rights to withhold documents from the public. Those are arguments Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese rejected in January.
This would be the wrong direction for this important task force, which already is behind schedule. While lawmakers approved a work plan that talked about starting meetings in July or August, now the task force won’t meet until Sept. 5.
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Lawmakers should use this delay to refocus the task force agenda on expanding openness, rather than finding excuses for secrecy.
Right now, the proposed topics for the task-force meetings include only one fleeting reference to the public’s or the news media’s right to access information about government.
The work plan instead devotes more space to topics such as “separation of powers and the rights of constituents to privacy in sensitive communications,” “legislative privilege,” “the principles supporting exemptions from public disclosure” and “abusive requests.”
“It really sounds like they just want to inform us of how we’re wrong,” said task force member Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
This is an issue that deeply concerns citizens who aren’t members of the news media, as 20,000 people showed earlier this year by flooding Inslee’s office with emails and calls requesting he veto lawmakers’ attempt to close off certain records. With the dwindling number of reporters covering government nowadays, ensuring citizens can access information to keep watch on elected officials is of paramount importance.
The Legislature must ensure its task force on public records addresses these concerns, which Washington citizens voiced so clearly earlier this year.
That will involve lawmakers adopting an agenda that isn’t solely about defending themselves, but also carefully listening.