OLYMPIA — An alliance of news organizations, including The Daily Herald, launched a legal fight Tuesday to require state lawmakers follow Washington’s public records law and release records generated through their work as elected officials.
The lawsuit, filed in Thurston County Superior Court, takes aim at language lawmakers added to the public records statute more than two decades ago that they contend exempts them from stricter disclosure rules imposed on elected officials and government employees throughout Washington.
They’ve used this exclusion to avoid releasing items such as calendars, emails, phone logs and text messages — all of which elected officials from city councils and school boards to leaders of state agencies and Gov. Jay Inslee must make public, and do on a daily basis.
By withholding hundreds of highly important records, members of the state House and Senate are depriving the public of information essential to knowing what is going on in state government, the lawsuit says.
“We believe in the public’s right to know, and that includes what is happening with and around our elected officials,” said Gloria Fletcher, president of Sound Publishing Inc., owner of The Herald and Heraldnet. “It is as simple as that.”
Toby Nixon, a Kirkland City Council member and president of the Washington Coalition of Open Government, said lawmakers should be held to the same standard on public records as city and county leaders.
“How can we as citizens know that our elected officials are making good decisions if we don’t have access to the same information they are using to make those decisions?” Nixon asked.
Public records are a sore subject for some local officials.
Demands for records are on the rise and the cost of supplying them is climbing. Modern technology makes it possible for individuals and corporations to submit hordes of requests automatically through a mode known as a bot request.
While Nancy Truitt Pierce, a Monroe School Board member and legislative representative for the Washington State School Directors Association, was not aware of the lawsuit, she said it might spur improvements.
“Providing public records is vitally important. I still think there is a need for more reform,” she said. “I think lawmakers would have more appreciation for the need if they had to deal with the records requests in the same manner that we do.”
The suit names the state Legislature, the Senate and House separately, and the leaders of the four political caucuses individually.
Secretary of the Senate Hunter Goodman and Chief Clerk of the House Bernard Dean issued a brief statement in response to emailed requests the AP sent to the leaders of the House and State and the attorneys for each caucus seeking comment.
“We are aware of the lawsuit, but we have consistently advised members and staff not to comment on pending litigation,” Goodman and Dean wrote in a joint email.
Besides The Herald, other organizations involved in the lawsuit are AP, Northwest News Network, Spokesman-Review, Tacoma News-Tribune, Olympian, Seattle Times, KING-TV and KIRO-TV. Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association also are parties.
Voters created the state’s public records law with Initiative 276 in 1972. It set the bar for requiring elected and appointed government officials to make certain records available.
At the time of the initiative’s passage, the Legislature already had a definition of a legislative record. Lawmakers revised the definition in 1995. Lawyers for the House and Senate cite the change as a reason lawmakers don’t have to turn over their records.
Media organizations argue the lawyers’ interpretation is wrong. The action in 1995 did not “reverse the will of the people” expressed in the initiative and “remove or narrow its reach to the very elected individuals with which that initiative was so deeply concerned.”
In June, reporters sent requests to all 147 Washington lawmakers for copies of their calendars for the regular and special sessions, and text messages sent or received for their legislative duties.
Most let their chamber’s attorneys respond.
Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, did reply. He didn’t provide any records but did criticize the request as a “sad comment on the state of our press.”
“(Five) months down the road and you are asking for this stuff for 5 months back when you (the press overall) should have been on top of it in the first place,” Sells wrote in an email.
Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, released his calendar, noting in an email that “openness and disclosure regarding my public duties are vital for media and public accountability.”
Rep. Mike Pellicciotti, D-Federal Way, a King County prosecutor, provided his calendar and texts exchanged with his legislative assistant.
“These legislative records are in the public interest, and so I am voluntarily providing them as requested,” Pellicciotti wrote, adding he hoped his colleagues would do the same.
Jerry Cornfield, who contributed to this report, is the Olympia-based reporter for The Herald. His requests for public records from several Snohomish County lawmakers were denied. Those denials are an element of the lawsuit.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @dospueblos.