Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, in response to the ongoing coronavirus public health crisis, suspended several key parts of the state’s government transparency laws late Tuesday, including provisions granting public access to government meetings and records.
Inslee’s proclamation temporarily waives some requirements in Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) that compel governments to hold meetings in public areas open to citizens, and in the state’s Public Records Act (PRA) that requires agencies to allow people to submit requests and review records in person.
The governor’s order also temporarily suspends the records law’s requirement that local and state public agencies initially respond to a records request within five days, though it retains a general provision that agencies must respond to requests promptly.
Inslee’s proclamation contends “strict compliance” with the records law’s “regulatory obligations or limitations will prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action for coping with the COVID-19 State of Emergency in responding to public records requests by bringing people in contact with one another at a time when the virus is rapidly spreading.”
The proclamation extends until midnight April 23.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, wrote in a journalism list-serve Tuesday that because most people already request and obtain records electronically, the changes “will not impact most requesters.”
Nixon also said his group is “encouraging the public to follow their local agencies via electronic participation when meetings are convened, and to submit the records requests they would normally make also through online means.”
Before issuing the proclamation, Inslee’s office sought advice from a group of open government stakeholders, including Nixon, Rowland Thompson of the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and Eric Stahl, representing the Washington State Association of Broadcasters.
“I was actually very impressed that the governor’s office reached out to us to do the right thing,” Nixon said.
Inslee explicitly stated in the proclamation that “transparency in state government and all of its political subdivisions is an important state policy.”
On Monday, when he issued a sweeping “stay at home” order for citizens, Inslee also identified as “critical” and an essential business the news media, which heavily relies on government access in its work.
But already, several local and state agencies have cited the coronavirus emergency when recently notifying reporters that their requests for public records are being delayed or otherwise extended.
Waiving the open meetings law’s requirement for convening in public facilities “works to prevent the gathering of people to further curb the spread of the virus,” according to a statement about the proclamation posted on the governor’s website.
The open meetings waiver addresses only “necessary and routine matters” of the law’s requirements, “or matters necessary to address the COVID-19 outbreak, for the 30 days the proclamation is active,” the statement said.
Inslee’s proclamation also refers to “a plethora of electronic, telephonic and other options that make it possible for the public to attend open public meetings remotely.”
The public records law’s requirement that citizens have access to government facilities to review and copy public records isn’t safe or feasible, Inslee’s office said, because many agencies are now closed under emergency orders. That also makes “it difficult to respond to requests in the five-day deadline,” according to the governor’s office.
“However, agencies are still expected to continue to respond promptly and to the greatest and fullest extent possible,” according to Inslee’s office.
Nixon said he thinks Inslee’s proclamation suspends only “about the minimum that can be done in terms of dealing with the in-person contact” provisions of Washington’s sunshine laws amid the ongoing coronavirus emergency.
But Nixon also cautioned that local government bodies shouldn’t abuse the emergency suspension of public meeting requirements.
“Just because we’re under an emergency order doesn’t mean city councils need to call emergency secret meetings all the time,” he said.