A last-minute proposal to exempt state lawmakers from Washington’s Public Records Act flies in the face of a recent court ruling, while trampling voters’ right to know what their elected officials are doing on public time.
A judge told state legislators a month ago that they were breaking the law by refusing to release their emails, calendars and other working documents to the public.
Now, rather than comply with the court’s order and disclose the information they illegally withheld, your elected lawmakers are trying to cram through a bill to remove themselves from the state’s Public Records Act — a blatant attempt to circumvent the court ruling and keep their past communications and other records private.
Even more galling is that lawmakers are doing this without the normal slate of public hearings and opportunity for citizens to object. Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, and Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, introduced Senate Bill 6617 on Wednesday, and both legislative chambers are expected to vote on the measure by Friday.
This issue matters because without access to government documents, including lawmakers’ emails and text messages, it can be impossible for members of the public to know who is whispering in their legislators’ ears and prodding them to craft policies in specific ways.
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Not providing access to legislators’ emails and disciplinary records also obscures cases where elected officials are accused of harassing staff or behaving inappropriately. The recent #MeToo movement has unearthed several instances where legislative leaders dealt with sexual harassment accusations quietly and behind the scenes, without informing the public.
Legislative leaders are presenting Senate Bill 6617 ostensibly as a compromise measure, since it would require them to release some of their records in the future. Yet it would try to close all the past records that Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese already ruled the public was entitled to request and review. Lanese ruled largely in favor of the 10 media organizations that filed a lawsuit, a coalition that included The Associated Press and The Seattle Times.
Local government officials are required to release most of their documents to the public, as are state agencies. Gov. Jay Inslee’s office regularly releases his emails, calendar and other records requested by the media.
But legislative leaders have stubbornly maintained that state lawmakers require an added layer of secrecy to do their work. Inslee, a Democrat, refuted that notion in comments to reporters Wednesday, saying legislators “could succeed in their duties while being fully transparent like the rest of state government.” He’s right.
Senate Bill 6617 flies in the face of the trial court’s ruling, while trampling on voters’ right to know what their elected officials are doing on public time. For instance, the measure would withhold all of lawmakers’ communications with constituents, a loosely defined category that appears to include most people who aren’t formally registered as lobbyists or lobbying groups. This leaves ample room for businesses and special-interest groups to petition and influence elected lawmakers outside of public view.
The measure also would give the Legislature too much control over deciding which of its records it would release, including broad authority to withhold documents based on privacy concerns or any perceived safety risk. Requesters of records could no longer take their case to court if they think they have been wrongly denied documents — instead, committees run by legislators would have the final word.
Furthermore, in cases of alleged sexual harassment, only the final disposition of disciplinary proceedings would be subject to the Legislature’s amended public-disclosure rules. This would effectively bury any complaints that the Legislature might have mishandled or that might not have gone through formal channels.
This is not how voters envisioned their government doing business when they passed sweeping transparency reforms by citizen initiative in 1972.
Legislators signed up for public scrutiny when they ran for office. They should drop this craven and rushed attempt to shield themselves from being accountable to the public they serve.
If lawmakers pass this bill, they are doing so counter to the will of the people, and Inslee should veto the measure in its entirety.