State lawmakers should stop pushing for a compromise that would allow them to evade the state's Public Records Act, something they already tried in February to disastrous effect.
State lawmakers are always looking to cut a deal.
But when it comes to following Washington’s Public Records Act, there is minimal room for negotiation.
Legislators returning to Olympia next month should avoid meddling with the voter-approved government-transparency law. Not unless they can fundamentally agree that they — like most other public officials — must follow it.
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Inexplicably, this basic concept continues to stump lawmakers on the state’s Public Records Task Force, a group formed after the Legislature’s deeply unpopular attempt to exempt itself from the law.
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More than 20,000 members of the public contacted Gov. Jay Inslee’s office to urge him to veto that legislation, which he did in March. Individual lawmakers received hundreds of emails and calls.
Yet lawmakers on the task force seem to have forgotten the firestorm of citizen outrage that landed them there in the first place.
” … The question of whether or not the Legislature is subject to the Public Records Act was brought up a number of times,” state Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, said at the task force’s final meeting Dec. 7.
“I don’t think there’s any consensus up here at this point as to whether or not we consider ourselves subject to that.”
This intransigence shows that lawmakers have yet to learn from their mistakes. They continue to push for a “compromise” that would allow them to evade the current law, much like they tried to do in February. That’s no compromise.
Washingtonians have already made their position clear: They will not tolerate continued attempts to conceal lawmakers’ emails, disciplinary records and other working documents from the public.
A Thurston County judge ruled in January that lawmakers have been illegally withholding these types of government records for years. But instead of embracing transparency in government, legislators rushed through a bill to change the law so it would no longer apply to them.
The measure would have made state legislators less accountable to the public than local fire commissioners, the state attorney general, city employees or the governor, who vetoed the measure under pressure.
The Public Records Task Force, while intended as a peace offering, has provided little reassurance that lawmakers won’t try something similar in 2019. The group adopted a series of recommendations so vague as to be meaningless, including: “The Legislature should strive to be more transparent.”
That’s little comfort, since many lawmakers wrongly insisted their earlier bill improved transparency, rather than rolled it back from compliance with the judge’s ruling.
Many legislators seem willing to take their chances that the Legislature will win its case before the Supreme Court. The Legislature is appealing the Thurston County ruling, which came in response to a lawsuit brought by 10 media outlets, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times.
Even while the court case is pending, however, there is room to talk about details of how the Legislature can start complying with the Public Records Act. This may involve making technical tweaks to ensure state lawmakers are appropriately covered by the law’s existing 500-plus exemptions, which already allow withholding of many sensitive records. The Legislature also may need to improve its methods of electronic record keeping.
But a compromise cannot involve creating an entirely new set of rules for lawmakers that allows them to operate in greater secrecy than other elected officials.
There can be no middle ground when it comes to insisting legislators abide by the same transparency law as executive-branch agencies and city councils.
Anything short of that would go against the will of the people.
If lawmakers still fail to see that, they should avoid making any changes to public-disclosure rules in 2019.
They are too likely to damage the law, not to mention the public’s right to know, rather than improve it.