State lawmakers continue to claim they are not subject to the state Public Records Act, unlike nearly every other government official in Washington state. Their refusal is a disservice to the public they serve.
Washington state lawmakers continue to think themselves above the public disclosure laws that apply to nearly every other government official in the state, demonstrating a remarkable commitment to shielding their activities from public view.
The Legislature’s practice of demanding the utmost transparency from other state and local government officials while ignoring the same disclosure rules is nothing other than self-serving hypocrisy.
A coalition of media organizations, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times, has gone to court to challenge lawmakers’ assertion that their emails, text messages, calendars and disciplinary records are not public documents that must be released under the state’s Public Records Act. The Legislature, which has hired a team of high-priced lawyers at taxpayer expense, keeps pushing the case that its members are entitled to special treatment under the law.
No valid reason exists why legislators should not have to release documents showing how they conduct their business on behalf of citizens. While lawmakers have argued that they need to protect emails from constituents who reach out to them with personal stories or private information, state and local government officials consistently comply with the law, without seeming to hurt their ability to communicate with the public. Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, for one, has made a point of releasing emails, calendars and other types of records the Legislature repeatedly withholds.
“In almost 20 years, I’ve never had a situation where releasing an email has been an issue,” said Pierce County Councilmember Derek Young, a Democrat who previously served 16 years on the Gig Harbor City Council.
The only exception? When Young has received emails from legislators accustomed to thinking they are immune from public-records laws.
“They forgot it became a public record when they emailed me, and said something maybe they didn’t want printed,” Young said.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, agreed that lawmakers are primarily concerned with protecting their own reputations when they cite concerns about constituents.
“It’s just a convenient argument because they don’t want to have to disclose politically embarrassing communications,” said Nixon, a Kirkland city council member and former Republican legislator.
The news organizations that filed suit argue state lawmakers never actually exempted their records from the state’s Public Records Act, which dates to a 1972 citizen initiative. The Legislature claims it excluded many of lawmakers’ records with a 1995 amendment to the act.
Lawmakers should promptly end this charade and acknowledge that they are not above the open government laws citizens approved 45 years ago. The 1972 initiative was clear in assuring “full access to information concerning the conduct of government at every level.”
Legislators made an even stronger statement with language they added to the public records law in 1992: “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.”
It is time for the Legislature to follow its own advice, stop wasting taxpayer money on outside lawyers and demand of itself the same transparency it requires of other public officials.
It’s the right thing to do.