When the Legislature formed the committee in 2007, state law included more than 300 exceptions to Washington's broad mandate for access to public records. Five years later, the list has only grown.
OLYMPIA — The state’s Sunshine Committee, created as an antidote to the creep of state-sanctioned secrecy, is having a tough time persuading lawmakers to pay attention to its work.
When the Legislature formed the committee in 2007, state law included more than 300 exceptions to Washington’s broad mandate for access to public records.
Five years later, the list has only grown.
Committee member Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers, said legislators have authorized the “enhancement and expansion of a number of” exemptions to the state’s open-records law during this period. Last year alone, the state’s code reviser added 15 items and clarifications to the reasons public agencies can cite for withholding records.
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Meanwhile, the Sunshine Committee — formally known as the Public Records Exemption Accountability Committee — has not had much success persuading legislators to pare existing records exemptions.
“After being on the committee for a few years, you do kind of wonder, ‘what the hell am I doing and what is its purpose?’ ” said retired newspaper publisher Frank Garred, a member of the panel.
“The Sunshine Committee could serve a purpose, but right now, even I have a hard time figuring out what purpose would be useful,” Garred added. “The debate needs to go on in the arena where some decision will be made.”
The committee is charged with reviewing exemptions and recommending some for repeal or revision.
The Legislature has passed the committee’s recommendations only once — in 2010 when lawmakers approved a batch of eight changes that, among other things, narrowed an exemption for child-mortality reviews and clarified another for workplace-discrimination investigations.
A proposal to implement nine other committee recommendations died earlier this month when it didn’t make a deadline for a Senate floor vote.
Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, said the failure doesn’t reflect on the committee. He said the blame rests with lawmakers, who are faced with a short 60-day session this year.
“The (committee) is being productive,” he said. “(Legislators) are the ones right now that are not being productive by not getting the bill passed.”
Kline, who is both a legislator and a committee member, said he has no immediate concerns about the panel’s survival, though it has faced extinction in the past.
Lawmakers were concerned last fall that the slow pace of the committee’s work could put it on the chopping block. It was one of 95 boards and commissions Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed eliminating in 2009.
Kline says judging the committee by how many amendments to state law it authors is unfair. Members review many exceptions to the public-records law that they deem necessary in the end.
“It’s like saying the jury isn’t doing its work unless it convicts people,” Kline said. “There’s a lot of work in acquitting people, too.”
Other members agree that the committee’s track record doesn’t put it in jeopardy.
“I don’t think it raises concerns about the committee’s future,” said Tim Ford, committee member and the attorney general’s open-records ombudsman. “It raises legislative concerns about how we get our recommendations passed into law.”
The committee has been discussing strategies to get its bills through, including appointing Thompson as its legislative liaison, said committee chair Michael Schwab.
The retired Yakima County Superior Court judge also said he needs a “very high level of participation” from the lawmakers who sit on the committee.
Draft minutes show only one of the four legislators on the panel attended its January meeting several weeks into the busy legislative session. Three of the four made it to a September meeting, although that was the only session Rep. Jay Rodne, R-North Bend, had attended in more than a year.
Rodne said the meetings conflicted with work and other professional commitments, but that he stayed in contact with committee members throughout that time. He said he looks forward to participating more regularly this year.
Schwab said the committee has been looking at exemptions related to investigative and police records, as well as a proposed limit on how long records controlled by the state archives should remain confidential. It next meets March 27.