Democrats in Washington’s Legislature surely were moved by their Congressional colleagues’ eloquent impeachment arguments.
They should keep in mind the stirring words of U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff as they consider House Bill 1888, a misguided proposal that would bring secrecy to state government, making it harder to hold government employees accountable and protect the public from misbehavior.
“The American people do not agree on much, but they will not forgive being deprived of the truth and certainly not because it took a back seat to expediency,” the California Democrat said during his concluding statement.
Legislators should reject HB 1888 because Washingtonians also hold open government dear. They passed a citizen’s initiative in 1972 that says “the people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”
When legislators tried to exempt themselves from that Public Records Act in 2018, tens of thousands of citizens rose up, successfully demanding Gov. Jay Inslee veto that effort.
The act protects privacy. Material that “would be highly offensive to a reasonable person” or “is not of legitimate concern to the public” may not be released. That includes truly sensitive personal information.
That was affirmed by the state Supreme Court in October, when it ruled that disclosing birth dates of public employees is in the public interest and does not constitute a privacy violation.
Sadly, that didn’t end a destructive battle between public-employee unions and the conservative Freedom Foundation. The public seeking open government and news organizations are collateral damage.
The foundation tries to contact union members and let them know they aren’t required to join or pay dues. Unions, worried about losing revenue and members, try to prevent members from being contacted by the foundation.
After losing before the high court, unions are pursuing a nuclear option, seeking to blow holes in the Public Records Act with HB 1888, making it harder to identify public employees. They’re fearmongering, exploiting concerns about identity theft. This is making members unnecessarily fearful and pushing them to advocate for HB 1888.
Don’t forget — birth dates have been public records for years. They’ve been routinely disclosed on voter rolls and court records to identify individuals, with no complaints about privacy or concerns about misuse. Politicians themselves use these records when campaigning.
News organizations rely on birth dates for accurate reporting, including stories about misbehavior. This newspaper used birth dates and public records to reveal misconduct by former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, public-school coaches abusing students and state employees double-dipping on pensions.
Legislators considering HB 1888 must weigh the public interest that such transparency and information provides, and the actual harm prevented by birth-date disclosure, with hypothetical and unproven threats alleged by the bill’s proponents.
The vast majority of public employees do good things. But with 512,100 state and local government employees working for the people of Washington, there will inevitably be a few problems. To inform the public of these problems and hold government accountable, birth dates are necessary public records.
Some lawmakers are considering a compromise on HB 1888 that would preserve access for news organizations but not the general public.
This editorial board believes all Washingtonians deserve equal access to public records. But it would reluctantly support such an exception to avoid a worse outcome. It remains deeply concerned about legislators, year after year, seeking less and less openness and accountability.
To paraphrase Rep. Schiff, Washingtonians will not forgive being deprived of the truth.