State lawmakers need to stop thinking of open government as a charitable gift they can bestow or take away from Washington citizens at whim. Members of the Legislature’s Public Records Task Force don’t seem to be getting the message.
In truly tone-deaf fashion, Washington legislators keep clinging to the idea that they deserve special treatment when it comes to following the state’s Public Records Act.
This disappointing attitude has permeated the first two meetings of the state’s Public Records Task Force, formed earlier this year after lawmakers cravenly attempted to exempt themselves from the voter-approved transparency law.
More than 20,000 citizens called and emailed Gov. Jay Inslee to urge him to veto that legislation, which he did.
Yet, despite this public smackdown a mere eight months ago, many lawmakers still blindly insist the state’s existing government-transparency law cannot possibly meet their unique legislative needs. They continue to suggest that they should be able to withhold certain emails and other documents from the public.
Never mind that other public officials, from local city council members to the state’s attorney general, are required to release the same records upon request. Or that a Thurston County judge ruled in January that lawmakers were breaking the law by not disclosing these documents in the first place.
“We have had a lot of discussion about what the law is,” said state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, at the task force’s most recent meeting. “And I think what we’re here for is a discussion about: What do we think the law should be?”
In essence, legislators on the Public Records Task Force are going about their work backward. They remain focused on reasons they should be broadly excluded from large portions of the law, rather than discussing how they can ensure the same rules apply to them.
Case in point: So far, the task force has failed to thoroughly examine the law’s existing 500-plus exemptions from public-disclosure requirements. Many of these exceptions could already be used or adapted to address lawmakers’ concerns. Certain provisions, like the law’s existing protection for whistleblowers, perhaps could be tweaked slightly so they more clearly apply to people who contact legislators.
This would be a conversation worth having. Unfortunately, it is not the one taking place.
Instead, legislators on the task force mainly continue to fret that abiding by the Public Records Act would be an immense, unreasonable burden.
One lawmaker, state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, implied that complying with the law as it presently exists would be akin to giving his constituents a Christmas present.
” … We need to negotiate, and everyone has to be willing to give a little,” Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said at the task force’s Sept. 5 meeting. “It’s not Christmas — everyone has to come to an agreement and see if we can find something.”
That’s despite the trial court’s decision that said lawmakers should have been following the law already — and the fact that much smaller governments somehow manage to follow the rules. (Legislators are now appealing the lower court’s ruling, which stemmed from a lawsuit brought by 10 media organizations, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times.)
King, who co-chairs the records task force, at one point expressed dismay that media outlets occasionally use anonymous sources in their reporting. But, he lamented, a constituent who emails him wouldn’t always be granted immunity from having their name and email disclosed in response to a public-records request.
Conveniently, King seems to forget that journalists — unlike state lawmakers — are not paid by taxpayers.
Legislators should remember the preamble they themselves added to the Public Records Act in the 1990s: “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.”
That means most aspects of government should be presumed to be open, unless there is a specific reason to withhold a particular record. Not the other way around.
Open government is not a charitable gift that legislators can bestow or take away from Washington citizens at whim.
Rather, lawmakers should recall that the people have a fundamental right to keep tabs on their elected representatives — and they should start treating that right with respect.