OLYMPIA — Emails are pouring in to Gov. Jay Inslee from every corner of the state urging him to veto a bill allowing lawmakers to hide many of their records from the public.
As of Monday morning, nearly 550 emails had arrived opposing the effort by lawmakers to shield themselves from the Public Records Act that voters enacted nearly a half-century ago to keep a bright light trained on those elected to govern.
In the emails released by the governor’s office, people from Edmonds to Sequim, from Spokane Valley to Zillah, expressed dismay and anger at what they viewed as lawmakers forsaking the will of the public in pursuit of secrecy for themselves.
“The House and Senate should be ashamed,” wrote Robert Kenny and Julie Glover of Clinton. “What are our legislators trying to hide? Why are they trying to avoid accountability for their actions? Please veto this craven and irresponsible act.”
Tom Coonelly of Sequim wrote, “The process speaks of clandestine deals done in dark places for self-serving ends. It is an insult to open government and the citizens of our State.”
There were 38 emails from residents of Snohomish County plus 10 from those living in Bothell, which straddles Snohomish and King counties.
Mark Cholvin was one of nine people from Edmonds to urge the governor to use his red pen on the bill.
“This legislation causes me so much concern for the right of the governed to keep an eye on those passing laws in this state that I love very much,” he wrote. “I am shocked by the actions of the Senate and the House and ask that you please do not sign this disgusting secrecy into law.”
Letter writers criticized lawmakers for rushing the legislation through in 48 hours without hearings. They presumed lawmakers acted Friday at breakneck speed to get around a January court ruling that found their emails, texts and other records are subject to disclosure.
“This bill to circumvent the court represents the worst impulses of those in power and weakens our democracy, ” wrote Jeremy Thurston of Edmonds in an email sent Saturday evening. “Even though the legislature has passed this bill with a veto proof majority, I urge you to show your support for open government by vetoing it anyway.”
“As a teacher and parent I am infuriated that legislators did not follow procedure in moving this bill to a vote,” said Elizabeth Burns of Bothell. “As a public employee whose emails are public record, I don’t believe that legislators should be treated differently because they are elected officials.”
Lawmakers passed Senate Bill 6617 by a 41-7 vote in the Senate and 83-14 in the House. That happened in less than an hour Friday. It helped there was no debate as only one person from each party spoke in favor of the bill before the votes occurred.
The bill reached the governor’s office the same day.
Inslee has until 11:59 p.m. Thursday to act, according to a spokesman. He can sign it, veto it, veto sections then sign the rest or do nothing and allow it to become law without his signature.
If the governor vetoes any portion or all of the bill, it will take a two-thirds majority in each chamber to override his actions.
The records debate started heating up with a lawsuit filed last year by a coalition of media organizations led by the Associated Press and including Sound Publishing, The Daily Herald’s parent company.
The suit basically said the Public Records Act created by initiative in 1972 applies to lawmakers in the same way it applies to governors, the attorneys general as well as members of city councils, county councils and school boards. It argues lawmakers must respond to requests for a variety of public records as do these local government and statewide executives.
Lawmakers, who have been accustomed to not providing any documents, hired outside lawyers to make the case the law does not apply to the legislative branch.
In January, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled against the lawmakers, saying their emails, texts and other documents are subject to disclosure.
The bill approved by the Legislature removed lawmakers from the requirements of the public records law. It carves out a new section in state law for the legislative branch. It lays out the process that would govern release of lawmaker records, including a provision making two committees of lawmakers the final arbiters of disputes of what will and will not be disclosed. The bill also has an emergency clause so the changes go into effect as soon as it becomes law.
Some lawmakers who voted for the bill entered the weekend with the impression the governor would stay clear.
“My understanding is that Governor Inslee intends to let the bill go into effect without his signature, so it will become law next week,” wrote Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, in an op-ed for the newsletter of the Washington State Labor Council.
Pedersen make an extensive defense of the Legislature’s actions. He argued the legislation does not codify the practice of the past 45 years, in which lawmakers routinely have not provided records. He said it adds “substantial new categories of records” such as legislators’ calendars, and letters and e-mails from lobbyists, that “have never been public before.”
It will bar release of constituent correspondence and location of meetings on lawmakers’ calendars. “I think that these exceptions are balanced and appropriate,” he wrote.
Many of Pedersen’s colleagues are using his writing to explain to their constituents why they backed the bill — although in some cases they don’t make clear they are sharing his words rather than their own.
For example, Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds, issued a letter to “Friends and Neighbors” Saturday in which she wrote, “I want to thank Senator Jamie Pedersen for addressing this issue.” Her letter continues without any indication that every word that follows is his not hers.
Those writing Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, received a reply and a recommendation to read Pedersen’s analysis.
“Senator Bailey shares his sentiments about the need for legislation that clarifies what the Legislature’s duties for disclosing information are,” her staff member wrote to an Anacortes resident who contacted the senator’s office. “She appreciates your input and activism on this issue, and remains committed to open, transparent, and honest government.”