There are a few lessons to be learned from the Washington Legislature’s despicable effort to undermine the state Public Records Act. One is where Gov. Jay Inslee stands.
Finding a silver lining in the Legislature’s sleazy attack on the state Public Records Act is difficult, but I may have found one.
That would be the teachable moment legislators are presenting. Here are a few of the lessons.
For one, this is an opportunity to remind everyone that when you communicate with legislators, it’s like sending a postcard and not a letter. Many people may see what you write, so if you don’t want your words to become a public record, say them in person or on a call. More live conversations and less secretive messaging might also improve the political climate.
This is similar to advice parents give when kids start using computers and mobile phones: Be careful what you write and share because it’s not necessarily private; you never know who might see it.
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Legislators apparently forgot this basic rule. Lately they’ve acted like guilty teens asked to hand over their phones. After madly erasing messages and browsing history, they say “sure, I’ve got nothing to hide.”
Legislators and public employees at every level of government are getting another lesson, from the hailstorm of outrage at the Legislature. They are learning that their employers — the people of Washington — care deeply about open government.
The people insist on knowing how their public servants conduct themselves and who influences them.
This sentiment has grown stronger since the people overwhelmingly voted to establish the records act in 1972 with Initiative 276.
Washingtonians were then leading in a national wave of civic engagement and progressive policymaking that sought to restore government integrity amid turbulent times.
“Seattle and the state of Washington were just a hotbed of citizen activism I would say on a number of fronts,” recalled Bennett Feigenbaum, a lawyer who chaired the Coalition for Open Government that sponsored the initiative.
The initiative did more than open government records. It was primarily intended to bring transparency to elections and policymaking, by requiring disclosure of campaign donations, political spending and lobbying activity. It established the state Public Disclosure Commission to oversee campaign reporting.
Legislators — and cronies wanting to privately manipulate them — chafed at the disclosure rules and steadily chipped away at them.
Last fall I wrote about how gaps in the rules left the public in the dark about a quasi-political organization that pushed the costliest ballot measures in state history.
Disclosure of campaign spending remains important, but it offers only a glimpse of how politicians are manipulated. Some of the most influential special interests, whether the National Rifle Association or Seattle-based Transportation Choices Coalition, apply pressure mostly in ways that don’t show up in campaign spending reports.
They do so by summoning legions of sympathizers who can swarm lawmakers before crucial votes and threaten to swing elections one way or another. Grass-roots lobbying must be reported, but the underfunded PDC may in some cases give these political machines a pass, by saying their activities don’t meet its narrow definition of grass-roots lobbying or reporting thresholds.
Special interests also work closely with lawmakers to draft legislation, strategize and build blocs of support in Olympia. Public knowledge of this schmoozing used to come via disclosure reports of spending on meals and entertainment.
Now lawmakers and lobbyists are constantly in touch via cellphones and email. The public needs to see these communications to understand the conduct of government.
These public records should never have been hidden. But since 1977, legislators found creative ways to reinterpret the rules and avoid disclosure.
Legislators weaseled out of disclosure obligations by declaring themselves a special entity, not subject to rules that apply to other public agencies.
A judge called bull on this ruse in January. In a lawsuit filed by media organizations, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese decided legislators’ offices are public agencies subject to disclosure rules.
Legislators appealed but may still lose. So they quietly drafted a records act rewrite to solidify their special status. Last week they hustled it through, ignoring their rules and procedures for public notice.
Yes, it would be a challenge for legislators to maintain and disclose records. But the Legislature has addressed this challenge for other agencies and local governments. It has passed laws that enabled agencies to designate public-records officers and funded content-management software to automate agency record-handling.
Disclosing records can still be a hassle, but it’s a core duty of government.
This happens as Seattle and Washington are once again hotbeds of activism. But lately, policy activism tends to be initiated by, and to benefit, vested special interests, versus truly grass-roots efforts to empower citizens.
We may have trouble making this distinction sometimes. That’s partly because special-interest groups are so good at camouflaging their intent and methods of influencing people and government. There’s also a dearth of objective news media voices left to inform the public.
Worst of all, legislators are actively working to keep the public in the dark about what they’re doing backstage and who is whispering in their ear.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who can veto this travesty, is the last hope to salvage this legacy of Washington’s progressive, national leadership on open government.
His decision may be the most illuminating lesson of this debacle. Whether Inslee vetoes or not, everyone will know where he stands: either with the public or the legislators, who need a second chance to make this right.
No, standing aside would put Inslee on the side of the rich, powerful and secretive special interests that have fought open-government policies since 1972 and are now getting their way.