The Legislature intends to spend more of taxpayers’ money defending its illegal tradition of conducting the public’s business in the shadows. Its appeal is misguided and a waste of public dollars.
The Friday court ruling was clear and decisive: Elected legislators must follow Washington’s Public Records Act, just like other government officials throughout the state.
But legislative leaders are continuing to fight to keep their emails, calendars, disciplinary records and other working documents secret from the public. On Monday, just three days after Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled lawmakers routinely violated the state’s public-disclosure laws, attorneys for the Legislature announced they will appeal the case to the state Supreme Court.
Appealing this ruling is not only a misguided enterprise, it is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Between August and November alone, the Legislature paid four private lawyers more than $55,000 to argue that legislators are entitled to special treatment under the law. That sum doesn’t include money the Legislature spent on the case in December and January.
The 10 media organizations that brought the lawsuit, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times, contend legislators are bound by the same transparency rules that govern nearly all public officials from city council members to state agency heads. Earlier this month, the state Attorney General’s Office agreed.
But rather than accept the opinions of the trial court and the attorney general, legislative leaders intend to spend more taxpayer money defending their illegal tradition of conducting the public’s business in the shadows. This longstanding practice goes against the citizen initiative voters approved in 1972 to increase public scrutiny of all levels of government.
The best thing the Legislature could do is to let Lanese’s ruling stand, ending this costly fight and affirming the public’s right to know what its elected representatives are doing.
A few lawmakers have introduced bills purporting to open up the Legislature’s records, but each has its flaws. Proposals from Rep. Paul Graves, R-Fall City, and Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, would apply only to future legislative documents, closing off access to older records such as past misconduct complaints against lawmakers. With allegations of sexual harassment and assault rocking the Capitol in recent months, those records must be made public.
The best bill of the bunch comes from Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, as it would apply retroactively. However, Pollet’s proposal would also create troubling special exemptions for lawmakers that don’t exist for other public officials. These include letting lawmakers withhold certain emails and letters they receive from constituents, along with communications they send each other and legislative staff.
Lawmakers should abandon the idea that they deserve special treatment when it comes to how much they have to tell voters about the work they do on the public’s behalf.
When it comes to demonstrating legislators’ commitment to transparency, nothing short of following the same standards they demand of other public officials will do.