By now, Washington state lawmakers have had plenty of time to study up on why government transparency is important.
After all, six months have passed since the Legislature outrageously voted to exempt itself from the state’s Public Records Act. That provoked an outcry from citizens that led to a veto from the governor.
Yet as recently as last week, some members of the Legislature’s new task force on public records still seemed confused as to how they got there in the first place.
Two lawmakers on the panel said they were uncertain what the media coalition suing for access to lawmakers’ records would even want with those documents.
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“A question I have yet to hear a firm answer to in regards to the media is what exactly they’re after. What they want, what public records they’re interested in,” state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said during the task force’s first meeting last week.
“It would be really helpful to clearly understand what it is you’re after,” state Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, told members of the media who sit on the panel.
At this point, it seems as if lawmakers are either feigning ignorance or being willfully obtuse.
This month marks one year since a group of 10 media organizations filed a lawsuit against the Legislature outlining specific records they sought and were denied. Those records included all 147 lawmakers’ official calendars and work-related text messages, as well as certain emails and disciplinary records.
A trial court ruled in January that lawmakers broke the law by not turning over these types of documents. But a month later, lawmakers voted to simply exempt themselves from most of the law’s requirements – a clear attempt to sidestep the court’s ruling.
Gov. Jay Inslee later vetoed the legislation after more than 20,000 outraged citizens flooded his office with calls and emails.
After that firestorm, the Legislature created the new task force on public records as a sort of apology. But it remains unclear whether the eight lawmakers sitting on the panel have studied the history of the issue, despite being at the center of it.
With that in mind, here’s a short reading list for these lawmakers in the crucial position of serving on the public-records task force, in the interest of helping them get up to speed quickly. They should read:
Their own court case. The complaint filed by media groups in September 2017 outlines several specific documents lawmakers declined to turn over that are clearly in the public interest. These included top lawmakers’ emails to and from education lobbyists when the Legislature was working on a landmark school-funding overhaul.
The Legislature also has declined to turn over records of complaints and investigations into lawmakers’ conduct, including final disciplinary actions in some cases. After the #MeToo movement unearthed new allegations of sexual misconduct at the capitol last fall, withholding records that could shed light on how the Legislature handles these incidents is indefensible.
Existing exemptions from the Public Records Act. State lawmakers say they want to protect constituents who email them with private information. This is a bit of a red herring. Lawmakers should read up on the existing privacy and other exemptions in the Public Records Act, many of which already shield sensitive information from disclosure.
For instance, during last week’s task-force meeting, state Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, mentioned he would want to safeguard the “names and addresses of people seeking help with child support.” Already done, senator.
Their own laws. Many lawmakers seem concerned about responding to burdensome records requests that may cost staff time. Yet recently, the Legislature took steps to address some of these concerns for local governments, including by banning overly broad requests for all of an agency’s records and charging new fees for electronic copies of documents. Lawmakers should review these bills they passed in 2017 and ensure they are talking about the current version of the state’s public-records law, not drawing on outdated anecdotes.
The Legislature’s public-records task force can still be a success. But first, lawmakers must, at minimum, do their own homework. They should understand why the principles of open government matter so much to the public in the first place.