Washingtonians should contact their state representatives and urge them to preserve open government by rejecting House Bill 1533.
A number already have, judging from responses to my previous column about the bill potentially causing more harm than good.
HB 1533, which is presented as a way to help shield victims of harassment and domestic violence, would hobble the state Public Records Act. The way it’s written makes you wonder if it’s more about secrecy than safety.
This comes as local news organizations have fewer resources to hold government accountable and fight for open records, though recent stories still show the danger of secrecy-enabling policies such as HB 1533.
Here’s a sample of responses to Sunday’s column:
“I’m an American who has lived in countries that are literal dictatorships. HB 1533 — this isn’t how democracy is supposed to works. What next? Slippery slope,” one wrote.
“Your article hit the nail on the head. Attached is a letter to my legislators pointing out their lead is causing other agencies (Snoqualmie Valley School District in my case) to follow their lead and just ignore disclosure requests,” another reader wrote.
“HB 1533 is a virus that can be used by our governments’ controlling interests (those in control of our government, including unions). It is part of a yearslong strategy of both parties to obstruct transparency and the public’s understanding,” another wrote.
“I’m shocked that this is happening. In the past, I’ve tried to contact our legislators, but get no response (especially Patty Murray). Is there another way to prevent this from becoming law?” a Maple Valley reader wrote.
I suggest contacting state senators.
HB 1533, which would enable records of state and school employees to be made secret, is advancing.
House Speaker Laurie Jinkins pulled it from the Rules committee. A bipartisan House majority then approved the bill Monday. Now it’s before the Senate.
Representatives apparently forgot what their bosses, the people of Washington, said in creating the Public Records Act by initiative:
“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.”
The opposite will happen if HB 1533 enables public servants to hide what they do, what they’re paid and whether they’re held accountable for problems.
Protecting victims is very important. But HB 1533 isn’t the way. Intentionally or not, it’s a Trojan horse gutting the records act.
As I wrote Sunday, there are already ways for victims to exempt records from disclosure.
HB 1533 removes guardrails from this process and expands eligibility, so public employees can self-attest they’re being harassed and erase their name, job title and other information from public records. Attorney Michele Earl-Hubbard, a records-law expert, said it would be a boon for bad actors wanting to hide.
No evidence has been presented of anyone being victimized because of information obtained solely from public records. Why isn’t the Legislature studying whether existing protections fall short or could be improved?
Instead, it’s going straight for a nuclear option sought by unions that have long tried to cloak public employees’ identity. They’re also top campaign donors.
HB 1533 also forbids disclosure of how the secrecy tool is used (“any documentation … to administer this subsection is exempt from disclosure and is confidential and may not be disclosed”), so the public will never know if it’s working or being abused. That’s a red flag.
Privacy is important. But the question is, do HB 1533’s added privacy protections justify government secrecy?
I’d argue the added protections are minor, given that personal information is widely available through other means.
There are abundant examples of government secrecy harming people. The Seattle Times found 98 girls-sports coaches fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct who continued coaching or teaching. If HB 1533 weakens reporting rules the stories prompted, is that helping victims or victimizers?
In West Virginia, legislators approved a public-records exemption for jail records in 2021. It was pitched as improving privacy and protecting juveniles.
It turned out to be a sweeping change “that blankets in secrecy most records — everything from videos to incident reports — about West Virginia’s notoriously deadly jails,” the Mountain State Spotlight reported in December.
A former jail guard told the Spotlight her son, jailed on a burglary charge, appeared in court with abrasions on his face.
“He said that a captain had already slammed him into a wall, busting his face and that she had told him she was going to come back later and beat his ass,” she told the nonprofit newsroom.
The Spotlight also found families unable to get answers about why relatives died while incarcerated:
“They make fruitless calls to agency after agency. They wait in limbo for investigations that never end, are denied records that might provide clarity and receive little to no sympathy from public officials …”
Such revelations prompted the bill’s sponsor to walk it back, promising to undo the change to West Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.
“We need to make sure that whatever we do doesn’t shrink the accessibility of information from FOIA,” Republican Senate Judiciary Chair Charles Trump told the Spotlight.
Meanwhile, Washington’s Democrat-controlled Legislature is charging ahead with a bill increasing secrecy for its criminal justice system and the rest of state government.
Who knew House Speaker Jinkins and House Democrats would be more extreme on this issue, siding with jailers over the public, than a Republican named Trump?
We’ll see if Washington state senators care as much about transparency. Let them know you’d like Washington to preserve open government and find better ways to protect victims.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.