Celebrate Sunshine Week by rereading some of the great journalism made possible by Washington’s Public Records Act.
“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. 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. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”
— preamble to Washington’s Public Records Act.
Washingtonians just sent a strong message to the governor and members of the Legislature that they feel as strongly about the values embedded in the state Public Records Act as did state voters when they approved the act by initiative in 1972.
Three weeks ago, the Legislature acted to exempt itself from the act, which would have codified their wrongheaded practice and disregarded a judge’s order. Constituents flooded their offices with criticism. And Gov. Jay Inslee’s office received more than 20,000 calls and emails, almost all asking for him to veto the bill.
The governor did just that, and the chastened lawmakers agreed to review the matter in a more open process, including members of the public and the media.
The feisty public backlash is a fitting contribution to Sunshine Week, which runs through Saturday. Promoted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Sunshine Week is a celebration of the public’s right to know.
Gerry and Kathy Kingen of West Seattle used public records to prove that the city of SeaTac acted to sink the couple’s plans to build a park-and-fly lot because it would compete with the city’s plan to do the same. After the city lost in court, the SeaTac City Council in November agreed to pay $4.25 million of a $13 million settlement agreement.
Just last month, a Seattle Times story on former Mayor Ed Murray’s generous pension was written and reported by Lewis Kamb, with the help of city and state records. Kamb found the Seattle mayor who resigned in September among child sexual-abuse allegations is drawing both a state and a city pension that will pay him $115,920 a year, more than he made in 18 of his 21 years as an elected official. The Seattle Times stories about the abuse claims against the mayor by Kamb and reporter Jim Brunner also largely relied on public records.
Seismic Neglect, the ongoing Times watchdog series by reporters Sandi Doughton and Daniel Gilbert on every scary aspect of the region’s lack of earthquake preparedness could not have been written and vividly illustrated without public records. For example, they discovered elected state officials over the past three decades have repeatedly directed seismic-safety experts to create reports on earthquake dangers and for 30 years those reports have been ignored.
In 2016, public records were key to revelations about lead in drinking water at schools across Washington. Reports by The News Tribune of Tacoma, The Seattle Times and The Associated Press showed that few school districts regularly tested for lead in drinking water, raising public ire. Eventually that led to more districts testing and state government looking for new ways to pay for those tests.
Over the years, journalists have used public records to expose predators of children. The Times’ 2003 series, Coaches who Prey, used public records to track coaches who were fired or reprimanded for misconduct and moved to new districts. A 2007 AP investigation found 125 teachers lost their teacher’s licenses or had their licenses suspended between 2001 and 2005 for sexual misconduct.
These are only a few examples of how elected officials can be held accountable through crucial access to public records. It is a Washington state value that is as important today as it was 46 years ago.
As the Public Records Act reads, “The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”