Politics & Government

Inslee vetoes controversial legislative public records bill

Kento Azegami, left, and Jeanne Blackburn answer phones at the front desk at Gov. Jay Inslee's office in Olympia, Wash., on Thursday, March 1, 2018. Inslee's office has been receiving thousands of emails and phone calls asking him to veto a bill passed hastily by the Washington Legislature last week that would circumvent a recent court ruling that found state lawmakers are fully subject to the state's Public Records Act. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)
Kento Azegami, left, and Jeanne Blackburn answer phones at the front desk at Gov. Jay Inslee's office in Olympia, Wash., on Thursday, March 1, 2018. Inslee's office has been receiving thousands of emails and phone calls asking him to veto a bill passed hastily by the Washington Legislature last week that would circumvent a recent court ruling that found state lawmakers are fully subject to the state's Public Records Act. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte) AP

A bill exempting Washington’s Legislature from the voter-approved Public Records Act, circumventing an open-government court ruling, was sent to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk last week at breakneck speed.

On Thursday, it screeched to a halt when Inslee vetoed Senate Bill 6617 among growing outcry from residents who said it shuttered public information — and calls from a swath of lawmakers who said their sprint to pass the bill in roughly 48 hours was a mistake.

Inslee, in a statement emailed to reporters Thursday night, said: “The public’s right to government information is one we hold dearly in Washington.”

“Transparency is a cornerstone of a democratic government, and I’m very proud of my administration’s record on public disclosure,” he continued. “I believe legislators will find they can fulfill their duties while being fully transparent, just like state and local governments all across Washington.”

Lawmakers pledged not to override the governor’s veto and to convene a task force to hammer out recommendations on open-records reform at the Legislature in 2019. The committee will be made up of legislators, open-government advocates, representatives from the news media and other state officials.

Legislators “made a mistake by failing to go through a full public hearing process on this very important legislation,” according to letters signed by 41 House Democrats and 16 Senate Democrats and delivered to Inslee on Thursday.

SB 6617 was written after a coalition of media organizations, led by the Associated Press and including The News Tribune, sued the Legislature over their yearslong practice of denying disclosure of records such as emails, daily calendars and personnel investigations.

Lawmakers have claimed an exemption from disclosure they believe exists in state law. On Jan. 19, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese disagreed, saying individual legislators have always been subject to the Public Records Act.

That ruling prompted lawmakers to move forward last week with their attempt to exempt themselves from the Public Records Act. The bill passed both chambers of the Legislature with enough votes to override an Inslee veto had lawmakers chosen to do so.

Leaders of the news media organizations and their attorney, Michele Earl-Hubbard, agreed to concessions to help secure Inslee’s veto.

The coalition agreed not to seek enforcement of Lanese’s ruling while the Legislature tries to appeal it to the state Supreme Court. The group also agreed to join the Legislature in seeking a stay of Thurston County court proceedings and said it would not launch an initiative or referendum to change current law.

Senate Bill 6617 would have required legislators to release some records — such as work calendars, final disciplinary reports and emails between them and registered lobbyists — but would have shielded many others.

Correspondence with constituents would have been exempt from disclosure. Many lawmakers argued private information that can sometimes be in those emails should not end up in the hands of the general public.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island and Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, also would have retroactively blocked older legislative records such as the ones being sought by the media coalition, including records of sexual-harassment investigations and text messages between lawmakers.

In addition, the bill would have given the Legislature authority over whether records were required to be disclosed. If a public records request were denied, an appeal would go to committees run by lawmakers and politically-appointed staff, not to a court.

Many lawmakers hailed the legislation as a step forward in transparency since the Legislature had previously been denying nearly all records.

But open-government advocates said blocking past records and exempting many others that are disclosed by nearly all other state and local governments represented an unprecedented blow to the flow of public information.

Earl-Hubbard has said that was especially true since it followed a court ruling that found the Legislature was illegally withholding those records before.

In a letter to Inslee Thursday, Earl-Hubbard welcomed the chance to convene a task force after lawmakers’ rush to pass SB 6617. The bill got one public work session and nearly zero debate at the Legislature.

“It is our belief the public has the right to weigh in on any potential changes to public records law before it is enacted,” she said.

The governor’s veto came after a storm of criticism for SB 6617. Much came from news organizations and open government groups. Newspaper across the state, including The News Tribune, ran front-page editorials calling on Inslee to veto the bill.

But Inslee’s office also said it received more than 6,300 phone calls, 100 letters and more than 12,500 emails in the last week about SB 6617. Most contacting the office were opposed to the bill.

State lawmakers said they got similar backlash.

“We have heard loud and clear from our constituents that they are angry and frustrated with the process by which we passed” the records bill, says the letters signed House and Senate Democrats.

A letter released by House Republicans chided the process by which the SB 6617 passed and called Inslee’s veto “a good start.”

They also said any future legislation on public records should keep sensitive information of constituents private. The Legislature should “clearly protect victims and witnesses so our constituents may continue to hold government accountable at all levels without fear of retaliation,” the letter says.

Some public records exemptions do exist for sensitive information, such as for some whistleblower complaints.

Many House and Senate Democrats also stood by some of the policy in the measure saying in their letter it had “important transparency reforms.”

However, the letter says “the hurried process has overshadowed the positive reforms in the bill.”

Moving forward, Inslee called on the Legislature to have a traditional process for passing any open-government legislation that would clarify what information from the legislative branch should be public.

That may ensure reform won’t crumble as it did in 2018.

“Since this bill passed, my office and lawmakers have heard an unprecedented level of response from the public,” Inslee said. “Those messages were heard loudly and clearly. I now hope lawmakers, the media, and other stakeholders will work together to resolve differences through a process the public can have faith in.”

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein

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