Washington state lawmakers are set to swiftly vote on a bill to keep old legislative records secret and make some records public. The move comes after a judge found the Legislature in violation of open-records laws.
OLYMPIA — Wednesday: Release sweeping public-records bill that would shield a lot of lawmakers’ current public records. Thursday: Give bill a work session. Friday: Try passing it through the Washington Legislature.
State legislative leaders have set a breakneck pace to pass their proposed open-records bill.
Senate Bill 6617 comes after a judge in January ruled that legislative leaders violated the state Public Records Act for failing to disclose records.
Several news organizations, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times, had challenged the Legislature’s long-claimed exemption to Washington’s Public Disclosure Act.
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The Legislature has appealed, and the matter may wind up before the state Supreme Court.
In the meantime, lawmakers are trying to pass a new law.
On Wednesday, legislative leaders introduced SB 6617, which would remove the Legislature from Washington’s voter-approved Public Records Act.
The bill would make some legislative records public.
But it would keep private those records already in existence — many of which a Thurston County judge has ruled should be publicly available.
And to seal things even tighter, the bill prevents people from challenging this new records law in court.
Spokespeople for the four Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate did not respond Thursday to a request for comment on the bill and more information on how it came about.
Lawmakers Thursday held a joint committee session to take public input — less than 24 hours after the proposal’s announcement.
The five people who appeared at the last-minute work session raised a slew of questions, including:
• Why does SB 6617 withhold lawmakers’ older records like emails and calendars?
• Why prevent people who seek records from challenging the law in court?
• Why should people trust lawmakers to act in the public’s best interest by passing such a broad piece of legislation so quickly and without debate?
“It’s breathtaking to have a bill show up this late in session, on this most important issue,” Rowland Thompson of Allied Daily Newspapers told lawmakers in the work session. Thompson is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
With legislative leaders avoiding comment, it fell to Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, to defend the proposal put forth by legislative leaders.
Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese’s ruling — which stated that lawmakers’ individual offices are subject to open-records laws — was logistically unworkable and would have forced each lawmaker to draft their own records rules, Pollet said.
Although he said he disagrees with barring the public from going to court to challenge the Legislature’s public-records law, Pollet said he supports the bill.
In Thursday’s hearing, Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, said lawmakers were still digesting the implications of the bill they’re expected to vote on Friday.
“We’re learning about it as we go along, too,” said Hunt, chair of the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections Committee.
“None of us had a hand in writing this,” Hunt added later.
Constituent emails stay private
Lawmakers will have to get educated quickly before Friday’s expected votes.
The 24-page proposal would make public correspondence such as emails between lawmakers and people not considered constituents, as well as information from legislators’ calendars.
Only such records created after July 1, 2018, would be subject to disclosure.
Meanwhile, SB 6617 would keep private correspondence between lawmakers and their constituents.
Local and state governments routinely provide those documents under the Public Records Act. But some lawmakers have argued theirs should be kept confidential.
“In our communications are very, very private emails that come from our constituents,” said Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, during the work session.
Thompson argued the language exempting constituents could allow powerful interests like corporations or unions to secretly communicate with lawmakers by deregistering their lobbyists.
“There will be entities that will drop their lobbyists so that they can communicate with you in secret, and that is a very real issue,” said Thompson. “People game these kinds of wordings.”
Pollet said he believed that wouldn’t be lawful under SB 6617.
SB 6617 also would make public final versions of disciplinary reports, such as from investigations of harassment or sexual assault.
But such complaints in the Legislature rarely get that far, meaning the law may shed no new light on the Legislature’s outdated and politically tinged process for handling harassment complaints.
The bill specifies that special committees in the House and Senate be used to resolve any challenges to the Legislature’s public-records law.
That language, “essentially renders it impossible for reporters to ever appeal secrecy by our elected officials,” according to a statement opposing the bill by the Western Washington chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists.
Thursday afternoon, The Seattle Times emailed requests for comment to a dozen lawmakers on the two committees involved in the work session.
Only one lawmaker responded by Thursday evening.
Hunt, the committee chair, wrote in an email that he’d probably support the bill and noted it “does have a very wide range of items that are public.”
“The judiciary also exempts itself from any judicial review,” Hunt wrote. “I was told we are following that example.”
Since the bill is being fast-tracked, Hunt added, it would be difficult to amend.
Perception of “crooked politicians”?
After Thursday’s hearing, two lawmakers announced they would oppose the bill.
“The public has a right to have access to our public records,” said Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, D-Federal Way, adding later: “I have major concerns with how quickly this is moving through the process.”
Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, also said he would oppose SB 6617, both because of the policy and how voters would perceive it.
“What would an average voter think?” said Miloscia. “They’ll throw their hands up and say, ‘you know, the crooked politicians are doing it again.’ ”
Gov. Jay Inslee this week said lawmakers can do better than SB 6617.
“As I have said repeatedly, my office has found a way to be effective in representing 7 million people while still being subject to public-disclosure laws,” Inslee said.
Inslee said he didn’t know whether he would sign the Legislature’s proposal.
Lawmakers may ultimately have enough votes to override a veto by the governor.
The short notice on the bill frustrated open-government advocates.
“There would be 20 publishers here, had we had more notice,” David Zeeck told lawmakers at Thursday’s hearing.
Zeeck is publisher of The (Tacoma) News Tribune, The Olympian and The Bellingham Herald.
In a text message, Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said he had other obligations already scheduled and couldn’t attend Thursday’s session.
“This is exactly why doing this kind of thing on less than 24 hours notice is so bad,” Nixon wrote in his message.
Zeeck told lawmakers they were rushing, and noted the bill’s “emergency” clause that would allow it to take effect immediately once it passed.
“What emergency?” said Zeeck. “Slow down; bring it before the Legislature next year.”