Politics & Government

McKenna to propose Office of Open Records

State Attorney General Rob McKenna will ask lawmakers to consider a new approach to settling public-records disputes by creating a new Office of Open Records that would use hearings judges to decide who is right.

“This is a bill we know won’t pass this year, but we want to have a conversation about it,” McKenna said Wednesday in a meeting with The Olympian’s editorial board.

The measure is one piece of a relatively modest legislative agenda that McKenna outlined. He said his proposal is sponsored by House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, and would require the hiring of administrative hearings judges to handle disputes over the disclosure of public records. He would leave court as an option for those who need it, but those suing could lose the right to win administrative penalties against government agencies.

The proposal grows out of a task force he and state Auditor Brian Sonntag, a Democrat, convened during the fall.

“I think it’s time to talk about it. It’s become a bigger and bigger deal,” Kessler said in a telephone interview, explaining why she will sponsor the measure. “The money involved in some of these cases keeps getting bigger and bigger. I think it would be good for people to have an interim place to go and not have to go to court first.”

As outlined by McKenna, the new government function would be housed in the Office of Administrative Hearings. It would be a hybrid of what states such as Pennsylvania, Illinois and Connecticut have done, but would avoid the costs of setting up a new agency like the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Three of McKenna’s other requests are proposals in the realm of public safety that lawmakers either rejected or ran out of time to approve in 2009:

 • One measure would increase penalties for those who prey on vulnerable adults. House Bill 2426 and Senate Bill 6202 would add sentencing enhancements of 18 months to five years for felony crimes against those age 60 or older who cannot care for themselves or when victims are developmentally disabled or living in residential facilities. McKenna says reports of the abuse, neglect and financial exploitation of the elderly are on the rise. He proposes working with financial institutions to shield them from liability if bank tellers held up potentially exploitative financial transactions from privacy-violation claims.

 • A measure would let misdemeanor domestic violence convictions be counted in an offender’s score when calculating the length of a felony domestic violence sentence. HB 2427 and SB 6203 come 25 years after adoption of the state Domestic Violence Protection Act and would let prosecutors “take hard-core recidivists and get them into a state prison,” McKenna said. The law could affect 7 percent to 8 percent of the 1,200 domestic violence felonies a year in King County, for instance, and in a bid to keep down financial effects of the law, sanctions would not take effect until 2011.

 • A child sexual exploitation measure would make it a crime to view images of child sexual abuse over the Internet, going beyond the requirement that there be possession or downloading of the materials online. HB 2424 and SB 6201 would protect from prosecution officers who view the material for investigative purposes. McKenna compared the situation to music pirating and said the measure would let law enforcement better crack down on pedophiles who use computer-to-computer file sharing to hide their transactions.

 • McKenna’s agenda also includes a measure to deal with what he considers an abuse of eminent-domain laws that let government condemn land and, in some cases, turn it over to private development.

A cluster of bills – HB 2423, HB 2435, SB 6199 and SB 6200 – bar use of eminent domain for economic development. He also would revise the state’s community renewal law, which provides a condemnation option in cases of blight. McKenna said the definition of blight needs tightening to restrict it to specific parcels rather than an area.

 • McKenna also has a bill to fix an oversight in last year’s update of the “lemon law” for consumers who have purchased defective cars. It would require disclosures by used-car dealers who are selling “lemon” cars. Another bill caps the “finder’s fee” at 5 percent for people who lose homes to foreclosure but don’t know they have equity left over from the bank’s sale until a third-party lets them know.

On other matters, McKenna:

 • Did not say when he might formally explore a run for governor, but acknowledged that attorney general and governor are the two positions on his “list of options” for future campaigns. McKenna is in his second term as attorney general and noted that five of the past six attorneys general have served three terms. The U.S. Senate is not on his list, but helping Republicans offer policy alternatives to the Democrats in the 2010 elections is something he is trying to do, he said.

 • Said the Building Industry Association of Washington broke campaign finance law by hiding its solicitation and collection of $582,000 for nearly a year before disclosing it during the 2008 governor’s race and using it to help Republican Dino Rossi. He dismissed the builders’ extortion accusations related to its roughly $900,000 settlement offer.

“I guess they want to personalize the issue in order to distract attention …” McKenna said, adding that BIAW is not responding to discovery requests. The builders say the AG requests are overly broad, and BIAW spokeswoman Erin Shannon said in October: “Clearly, clearly this is political persecution. … We think McKenna has higher political aspirations in Washington state and is pandering, showing he is not beholden to BIAW and is willing to take on BIAW.”

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688