Well-intentioned policies are being drafted in ways that make government less transparent and accountable.
Although Washington lawmakers abandoned their most aggressive effort to undermine the state Public Records Act, they’re still chipping away at it during the current legislative session.
This isn’t necessarily because they oppose open government. But sometimes, well-intentioned policies are drafted in ways that make government less transparent and accountable.
That’s the case with House Bill 2020, which is pitched as a way to encourage state employees who are victims of discrimination to come forward without fear of reprisal. That’s a worthy goal.
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But HB2020 seeks to accomplish this with secrecy, by making essential elements of discrimination investigations exempt from the Public Records Act. The public needs to know more, not less, about how government agencies address and resolve discrimination complaints.
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Such investigations are now confidential while underway but become public record once complete. The bill would mandate that by default, identities of complainants and witnesses be redacted, unless the employees agree to disclose their names.
While this may sound like a benefit to victims, it could have the opposite effect. The public — the true employers of these people — would be less able to hold state agencies accountable and ensure they are conducting fair and unbiased investigations of workplace problems.
How can the public compare an agency’s responsiveness when handling a case involving someone related to the agency director, for instance, versus an ordinary employee, if their identities are obscured?
Shouldn’t the public know if allegations against a state senator came from, say, a peer in the opposite party or from a 19-year-old intern? Identities of complainants are essential for the public to compare and understand investigations in either case.
Public disclosure also serves as a deterrent to frivolous or overstated claims. And it reduces the stigma and suppositions that secrecy perpetuates.
HB2020 applies to internal workplace discrimination complaints, not criminal investigations, which have stringent confidentiality rules for victims of sexual assault.
A larger question is why state agencies are investigating themselves. A better approach would be for the Legislature to mandate that discrimination complaints be directed to a separate authority, such as the state Human Rights Commission, which is charged with enforcing the state’s anti-discrimination laws and has procedures to investigate and resolve complaints. It can also refer cases to administrative law judges.
Also troubling is House Bill 1692, which would prohibit state employees accused of harassment from seeking public records pertaining to their accusers. This appears tailored to address a single incident, in which former state technology worker Steve Majerick used public records to disprove a manager’s claim that he deliberately brushed against her in a hallway.
According to testimony submitted by Majerick, he requested security video that showed he wasn’t in the building when the alleged incident occurred. The video also showed the victim was carrying a large bag that prevented him from brushing against her anyway. This incident was part of a protracted workplace dispute originating with an off-color joke he shared with her, resulting in a fine and discipline. HB 1692 would explicitly have prevented Majerick from obtaining security video and other records to defend himself from the subsequent allegation.
The Legislature cannot pick and choose which citizens get to see public records. Nor should it be limiting anyone’s ability to exonerate themselves of an allegation. Astonishingly, HB 1692 was approved 98-0 by the House, where most legislators profess to be supporters of the Public Records Act. They must have forgotten the act’s the opening construction:
The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.