Wednesday's clash comes as lawmakers continued to wrestle with last year's court ruling that legislative leaders violated state law for withholding documents under the exemption that they have long claimed to Washington's transparency laws.
OLYMPIA — In a legislative committee hearing Wednesday, open-government advocates harshly denounced Washington lawmakers’ latest proposal to govern the release of their documents at the Legislature.
Meanwhile, a lawmaker warned that the Legislature could continue its long-claimed exemption from the Public Records Act if it gets a favorable ruling from the state Supreme Court.
Wednesday’s clash provided fresh fuel to the simmering frustrations after a court last year found that legislative leaders violated state law by withholding documents under the exemption that they have claimed to the Public Records Act.
Filed in Thurston County, that lawsuit was brought by several news organizations, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times.
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Legislators responded to that ruling by jamming through a bill last year on short notice to remove themselves from the Public Records Act and start releasing some documents — such as work calendars and communications with lobbyists — going forward.
The public hated it; Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed it. The state Supreme Court is expected to consider an appeal of the case this year.
In the meantime, state Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, sponsored a bill that he called an effort at compromise.
Senate Bill 5784 differs from last session’s ill-fated proposal in several ways. It keeps the Legislature in the state Public Records Act and it doesn’t close off all records from before the bill’s passage.
The bill also gives those seeking records the right to ask for a court ruling on whether a type of document is public. Like last year’s proposal, this bill would release communications by lobbyists, and it would also release the content of emails by constituents — but withhold their identifying information.
Open-government advocates, however, have raised the concern that the exemptions in Pedersen’s bill are so broad that they could even make secret some currently-available documents.
In Wednesday’s public hearing at the Senate Committee on State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections, Rowland Thompson condemned Pedersen’s bill, saying it largely sets the same standards for disclosure that the Legislature currently has.
“We would rather lose the case than have this bill,” said Thompson, a lobbyist for Allied Daily Newspapers. “If we accept this bill it’s an acquiescence on our part that your positions in the lawsuit are correct, because most of them are carried forward in this bill.”
Others testifying against the bill included David Zeeck, former publisher of The (Tacoma) News Tribune, and Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen.
Parts of the hearing centered around how much information should be released related to workplace-harassment complaints at the Legislature.
Since the #MeToo movement emerged in 2017, several women have stepped forward to tell their stories of harassment by former or current Washington lawmakers.
In some cases, those women spoke to news organizations because they said they felt the Legislature didn’t adequately handle their complaints, or because the power dynamic in Olympia favors lawmakers over staffers and lobbyists.
Their stories were among several factors that spurred the Legislature to begin revamping its policies to prevent and punish workplace harassment.
But lawmakers have argued too much transparency would discourage victims from coming forward.
“I’ve seen how women seriously wrestle with whether they even want to come forward with a lawsuit, because their identity will be made known, and many don’t,” said Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, in the hearing. “My concern is that this is already so underreported.”
Thompson questioned whether Pedersen’s bill — which would release final investigation reports, if approved by the House Chief Clerk or Secretary of the Senate — would shed enough light on whether the Legislature is taking harassment complaints seriously.
“This Legislature does not have a very good history in terms of actually holding investigations,” said Thompson. “I’ve been here long enough … where the standard procedure of the Legislature has been to walk the people who have alleged harassment off-campus and offer them some sort of help in getting a job elsewhere.”
After the hearing, Pedersen said he was still open to making changes to the bill to strike a compromise. One example, he said, might be making public the draft versions and related memos for bills that ultimately do pass the Legislature and become law. In the bill’s current form, those wouldn’t be disclosed.
While he and other lawmakers have spoken previously about wanting to make the Legislature more transparent, Pedersen also warned records could ultimately stay closed.
“What was astounding to me is Rowland’s assertion that he’d rather lose the lawsuit,” said Pedersen. “If you lose the lawsuit, none of this stuff is public.”
“If it’s the case that the Legislature winds up winning,” he added later, “it’s over.”
Even if the court ruled in favor of the news organizations, it could still be years before the Legislature begins releasing records, Pedersen said, depending on the court’s scheduling of the case and what the ruling decides.
With his bill, he said, “I’m trying to get us to a point … where we immediately start disclosing a much broader set of records.”