Keeping the windows of government open to the public is a never-ending job. Underscoring the risks to transparency, the Washington Legislature passed a bill last month that specifically exempted members from provisions of the state Public Records Act.
Legislators of both parties did so without hearings, debate or meaningful amendments. Gov. Jay Inslee’s veto, which followed front page editorials in a dozen newspapers condemning the Legislature’s action, stopped Senate Bill 6617 from becoming law.
This sorry episode is worth highlighting because this week marks another Sunshine Week, the yearly transparency event observed by U.S. newspapers and other open-government watchdogs.
Access to government records is under siege at federal, state and local levels. The state Public Records Act, which governs state and local governments, has been riddled with new exemptions nearly every year since its adoption by voters in 1972.
But in a January ruling Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese said state legislators are subject to the Open Public Records Act just as any other elected official or government office is at the state or local level.
Inslee’s veto – as courageous as it was correct – is far from the last word on the issue. The lawsuit from Northwest media groups, which spurred the Legislature’s effort to exempt itself, is on appeal.
Specifically at issue in the lawsuit are individual legislators’ meeting calendars, emails and texts from or to lobbyists and constituents. Lawmakers have long claimed they are exempt from disclosure as a separate branch of government, but Lanese rejected arguments that individual legislators were exempt from the records act mandate.
The next step in this fight is creation of an open-records legislative task force later this year. Before adjourning their session Thursday, legislators passed a supplemental operating budget that included language that requires the House and Senate to set up the task force.
It remains to be seen how the task force will play out, but setting it up was part of an agreement between lawyers for media groups and legislators that accompanied Inslee’s veto decision. Parties to the pending lawsuit also agreed they will ask Judge Lanese to put his ruling on hold during appeals.
However this dispute is resolved by courts, it would appear that our lawmakers learned a lesson. They made a huge mistake by passing a bill without hearings and utterly failing to consult the public meaningfully.
Their claim – that their bill was opening up legislative correspondence with lobbyists for the first time – rang hollow. That is because legislators sought to have the last word over which correspondence with constituents, including requests for political favors, are made public.
In South Sound, all 12 legislators from the four legislative districts overlapping Thurston County voted for the bill. A few, including 22nd district Reps. Beth Doglio and Laurie Dolan and Sen. Sam Hunt, all of Olympia, later signed letters supporting the veto. House Republicans all signed a letter blaming Democrats, who hold majorities in the House and Senate, for not holding hearings.
The public deserves better from both sides. An open society requires better disclosure and an open legislative process.
The overarching assumption of the records act is that government records belong to the public. It also assumes these are widely discloseable unless specifically exempted. This is a bedrock policy every public official should embrace.
The estimated 20,000 emails and phone messages sent to Gov. Inslee, most of them expressing opposition to the Legislature’s records law misconduct, are a healthy sign.
The public is watching in 2018, an election year. We are, too.