OLYMPIA — A task force set out Wednesday to identify obstacles to state lawmakers releasing their records to the public and possible ways to overcome them.
Though the panel is not directed to craft recommendations for new laws, some members would like to see if it can help end a simmering dispute between lawmakers — who have refused for years to routinely disclose items like emails and texts — and the media, which demands they do so, like other elected officials, as required by the state Public Records Act.
The public wants more disclosure and “that is the direction we should move toward,” he said.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and another panelist, said the task force should try to figure out how to ensure lawmakers abide by the Public Records Act as do leaders of cities, counties and state agencies.
Others offered less ambitious desires for the panel, which will meet three more times before disbanding.
Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, one of the panel’s two chairmen, said he hoped the effort would illuminate various points of contention to help paint a “better road map” for lawmakers heading into the 2019 session.
There’s a long back story to the creation of the task force.
Last year, a coalition of media organizations led by The Associated Press and including Sound Publishing, the Daily Herald’s parent company, sued to compel lawmakers to hand over their records as other elected officials do.
In January, a Thurston County Superior Court judge sided with the media by ruling that individual lawmakers and their offices are subject to the public records law. The next stop for the lawsuit is the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, after the January decision, lawmakers moved at breakneck speed and without any public hearings to pass a bill to disclose some records but to make others exempt. On March 1, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the bill.
At the time, majority Democrats agreed to form the task force, and those involved in the media lawsuit agreed to participate.
The 15-member panel is comprised of eight lawmakers, three media representatives, three members of the public and an open government advocate. Andy Hobbs, editorial director of Seattle Weekly and Sound Publishing’s other King County newspapers, and Ray Rivera, deputy managing editor for investigations and enterprise at The Seattle Times, also are on the panel.
At times Wednesday, lawmakers expressed the same concerns that have been raised in the lawsuit and on the floor of the Legislature.
Five lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, stressed a need to protect the privacy of constituents who contact them with personal issues. Some lawmakers also fretted about the high cost of complying with disclosure and worried about the motives of those obtaining them.
“Some people’s transparency is another person’s gotcha,” said Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia.
The next meeting will focus on the perspective of the media. Lawmakers said they hope to learn what records reporters are seeking.
“I can’t always understand what you want and when and why,” Springer said, as he looked in the direction of reporters covering the task force meeting. He said it would help to “clearly understand what it is you’re after (and) how it serves the public.”
How local governments handle public records will be addressed at another session.
Dates for the remaining meetings have not been set.