Media, lawmakers search for peace on public records

With mediation on tap, questions remain as to who can objectively participate.

OLYMPIA — A bunch of folks at the William D. Ruckelshaus Center are waiting to help bring about detente in the public records battle between lawmakers and the media.

They’ve been chosen to mediate a conversation on the process by which emails, texts, calendars and investigations generated by lawmakers could be made available in accordance with the state’s Public Records Act.

But their clients in the Legislature haven’t called to get started because they are still sorting things out themselves.

If you remember, a coalition of media organizations led by The Associated Press and including The Herald sued last year to compel lawmakers to hand over their records as other elected officials do. I am one of the reporters identified in the suit who sought those records.

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 will be in front of 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 exempt the really good ones. On March 1, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the bill.

He hadn’t planned on doing that. But tens of thousands of residents contacted his office to urge him to do so, fueled no doubt by an unprecedented coordination of front page newspaper editorials blasting lawmakers’ actions. The public’s backlash coupled with a masterful bit of diplomacy by Inslee’s top aides led to lawmakers apologizing for their haste and requesting a veto.

And lawmakers said they would form a task force to develop recommendations on the release of legislative records for consideration in the 2019 session. In the budget, they set aside $50,000 and named the Ruckelshaus folks as facilitators.

The task force hasn’t met. It’s unclear if it’s even been formed. They’ve been trying to figure out who can participate as an honest broker in the discussion.

Legislators are supposed to be on the panel.

Which ones? The leaders of the four caucuses? All four are defendants in the lawsuit, which would certainly skew their view. Instead of them, do you pick veteran lawmakers with sway in their caucuses or new members less resistant to change? Or is everyone potentially too close to the situation?

Representatives of the news media are supposed to be on it too.

Who? A member of the Capitol press corps like myself or an editorial page writer? What’s the motivation? Why would we negotiate terms for disclosure before the state Supreme Court acts? The attorney for the media coalition did pledge in writing to work with legislators to resolve differences, but is compromise possible on the major matters before the court rules?

Representatives of the Office of Attorney General are supposed to be on the task force. Attorney General Bob Ferguson has made his position clear and seems unlikely to waver if he intends to file an amicus brief to the high court in the case.

On balance, this task force will be challenged to agree on substantive recommendations until the legal landscape is clearer.

For the dialogue is to be productive, it would be useful to get outsiders with insider knowledge on board.

There are respected ex-lawmakers, ex-governors and ex-attorneys general around who understand the conflict. Former reporters, too. There’s no shortage of lawyers and activists with deep knowledge of the public records law.

Maybe folks at the Ruckelshaus Center could start combing through their contact lists as they await a call from their clients.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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