The people of Washington have spoken, repeatedly:
They “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.”
That’s the opening construction of the Public Records Act that Washingtonians overwhelmingly voted to create in 1972.
The act now faces a key test. The state Supreme Court on Tuesday hears oral arguments in a lawsuit over whether public servants in the Legislature get special treatment, different from other public agencies — in effect deciding what’s good for the people to know about their activity.
Media organizations that brought the lawsuit were denied legislative records, including records related to complaints of legislator misbehavior.
The Legislature lost its case in Thurston County Superior Court in January 2018 and appealed. It also lost in the court of public opinion but keeps fighting.
Just weeks after the Superior Court decision, the Legislature rewrote the law to partly exempt itself from disclosure requirements.
The people were outraged. In an impressive show of civic muscle, around 20,000 calls and emails from state residents flooded the office of Gov. Jay Inslee, demanding he veto the bill. Inslee rightfully killed it, and calls and emails to legislators persuaded them to stand down and not override the veto.
Even then, legislators tried again this year to craft a special version of the disclosure rules for themselves, instead of simply following rules that work for every other agency and legislative body in Washington. That effort also fizzled.
Now, in its appeal, the Legislature comes before the Supreme Court with a tortured defense that it is not a state agency.
By arguing that it actually exempted itself years ago, the Legislature is basically saying it disregarded the will of the people in the Public Records Act. Also, if the Legislature had indeed exempted itself already, why try to give itself special treatment in 2018 and again in 2019? What are they trying so hard to keep hidden?
Meanwhile the Public Records Act’s value — and the ongoing challenge of maintaining open government — was shown in Sunday’s story by Seattle Times reporter Mike Baker. Using public records, Baker revealed that public universities have tried to hide embarrassing details about employee misbehavior by using nondisclosure agreements when settling some student complaints.
While the act enabled this reporting, it’s an ongoing effort to ensure compliance. The University of Washington still withheld some records providing details, potentially involving civil-rights complaints about employees, in cases involving payouts to students.
The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created. It’s especially troubling when they’re deprived of information about the conduct of public employees.
Washington state cares deeply about good government, transparency and the well-being of people working for and interacting with public agencies. These values demand that the Legislature and other public agencies fully abide by the Public Records Act.