The state’s Sunshine Committee – once envisioned 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 created 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 since the committee’s creation. Last year alone, the state’s code reviser added 15 items to the reasons public agencies can cite for withholding records.
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.
The committee is charged with reviewing exemptions and recommending candidates 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.
“We have to be able to pass these bills,” said Kline, a member of the committee himself. “The commission is being productive. We’re the ones right now that are not being productive by not getting the bill passed.”
Kline said he has no immediate concerns about the committee’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, committee chair Michael Schwab said. 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 types of professional conflicts, 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 while he’d like to see the panel’s recommendations become law, its work affects public policy either way.
“What is important is that we raise the debate,” Schwab said. “While we would like to have validation from legislators on the work that we do, it isn’t necessarily crucial.”
Schwab has been trying to revamp the committee since Gov. Chris Gregoire announced his appointment last April.
“I wasn’t just going to preside over a funeral of the committee,” Schwab said. “ I have heard people on the committee say that they notice that there’s greater energy and enthusiasm.”
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.
Alexis Krell: 360-943-7123 firstname.lastname@example.org