The latest bill dealing with public records includes overly broad exceptions for legislators that would allow them to skirt transparency rules that apply to other public officials.
Citizens have good reason to be concerned about a new proposal that would exempt Washington legislators from parts of the state’s Public Records Act.
This proposal is much like an unpopular bill lawmakers jammed through last year, touching off a public uproar that prompted the governor’s veto. The new measure includes overly broad exceptions for legislators. This latitude to withhold government documents would obscure how state lawmakers arrive at policy decisions, as well as who is influencing them.
In effect, these provisions would allow legislators to conceal more of their working documents from the public than other state and local elected officials can.
This double standard remains the fundamental underpinning of the new legislation. And it remains unacceptable.
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Senate Bill 5784 — sponsored by state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle — is expected to have a public hearing Feb. 13.
Citizens should use the time between now and then to voice concerns they have about the measure — and to urge the Legislature to follow the Public Records Act as it presently exists.
Members of the public did not have this same opportunity to comment last February. Over the course of a mere 48 hours, legislative leaders introduced and passed a bill that permanently closed off access to lawmakers’ past emails, calendars, disciplinary records and other government documents.
This heinous rush job came only a month after a Thurston County judge ruled that lawmakers had been illegally flouting the Public Records Act for years.
About 20,000 citizens contacted Gov. Jay Inslee to ask him to veto last year’s legislation, which he did.
But, outside of ample opportunity for public comment, Pedersen’s new attempt in some ways doesn’t look much different.
To start, the bill would permanently shutter access to all past and future records concerning legislators’ deliberative process, adding exemptions so expansive that they could be used to justify withholding almost any document. These provisions would prevent the release not only of draft versions of bills and emails discussing legislation, but also important policy analyses prepared by legislative staff.
Such analyses can help illuminate, for instance, how a school-funding plan would affect all of the state’s 295 school districts, or how a proposed policy change might raise or lower residents’ taxes. This is important information that influences how lawmakers vote, and citizens should be able to review it.
The real rub is that lawmakers would never have to release these documents, even after a bill has been passed into law. That’s a stark departure from the existing rules in the Public Records Act, which require other government officials to share records of their deliberative processes after they make a decision.
The bill would also withhold the names and contact information of just about anyone who writes a legislator to lodge a complaint or urge action on legislation, unless the person is a registered lobbyist or an employer of one. This dispensation is not one the law grants to other public officials — not local fire commissioners, city council members, nor the governor. This would create unacceptable opacity surrounding who is trying to influence state legislators, as well as how lawmakers respond to feedback from their constituents.
Yet perhaps the most worrisome part of the bill is how it would withhold records of misconduct investigations. The measure would permanently exempt all witness statements and investigators’ notes, limiting the public’s ability to see whether the Legislature handled complaints appropriately.
This should be of paramount concern in the #MeToo era, which has led to several lawmakers being accused of sexual harassment or other misconduct. It is especially odious given the Legislature’s history of handling complaints informally or sweeping them under the rug.
And, what’s more, these documents are ones lawmakers are already required to release under current law, according to the trial court’s decision from last January. The Legislature is now appealing the ruling in that case, which was brought by 10 media organizations, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times.
Once again, lawmakers are deceptively billing this new legislation as a step toward greater disclosure.
And, once again, they are ignoring that breaking the law in the past does not entitle them to special treatment in the future.