Snow falls and sticks to tree branches on Tuesday at the Capitol in Olympia. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Snow falls and sticks to tree branches on Tuesday at the Capitol in Olympia. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Foes of public records bypass bill say it incites mistrust

Most lawmakers don’t want to disclose calendars, emails or text messages to citizens upon request.

OLYMPIA — For a little less than an hour Thursday, state lawmakers got schooled on why they should reject a bill that seeks to exclude them from the state’s public records act and shield a trove of documents from ever seeing the light of day.

They heard a newspaper executive, a media lobbyist and four citizens warn that passage of the Senate bill crafted by lawyers and leaders of the House and Senate will incite mistrust of and suspicion toward all 147 citizen legislators.

The legislation is due for a vote in the Senate on Friday, then could be sent to the House for action.

“I think the people are going to ask you, ‘What are you trying to keep from me?’” said David Zeeck, publisher of The News Tribune and The Olympian. “You’re running the risk of demonstrating to the people that you’re setting up an imperial Legislature that is not subject to the people knowing what it’s doing.”

Kasia Pierzga, of Olympia, former owner of the Whidbey Examiner in Island County, said lawmakers work for the people and should not try to perform their duties outside the public view.

“We the people have the right to inspect all records pertaining to your work,” she said.

Their comments came in a work session on Senate Bill 6617, which Senate and House leaders are rushing through the legislating process even as many, if not most, members have not been able to read and comprehend its contents.

“We are not the authors of this bill,” said Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, at the outset of Thursday’s work session involving the state government committees in the two chambers. “We are learning about it as we go.”

As he spoke, the bill had already been placed on the Senate floor calendar.

“I am hoping we can vote on it (Friday) night,” said Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island. “If we find that we’ve got issues … we can come back and fix them next session.”

Voters enacted the Public Records Act in 1972 via initiative.

Since then, elected leaders of local government, including cities, counties and school districts, plus governors, attorneys general and other statewide office-holders have lived with its obligation to disclose records such as calendars, written missives, emails, and text messages upon request.

State lawmakers have long argued they do not have to abide by the law. While some lawmakers will fulfill requests for records, it’s rare rather than customary.

A coalition of media organizations, led by The Associated Press and including Sound Publishing, which owns The Herald, filed a lawsuit last year challenging lawmakers’ assertion they are exempt from the law. In January, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled lawmakers’ emails, text messages and other documents related to their duties are subject to public disclosure.

He noted lawmakers can always amend the law, but unless they do, they must comply.

Senate Bill 6617, introduced Wednesday, aims to get them around the law.

It would remove from Public Records Act compliance the legislative branch, comprised of the Legislature and entities such as the Legislative Ethics Board, the Joint Transportation Committee, and the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee. It would create a new section in state law pertaining to the legislative branch.

Most of the bill sets out the manner and means in which the public can seek records from the legislative branch.

It designates the secretary of the Senate and chief clerk of the House as the public records officers in each chamber. All requests would go through their offices. In anticipation of additional costs, the Senate Ways and Means Committee added $350,000 into the current budget to assist each chamber.

Records that would be available include documents filed with committees, internal accounting and financial records, travel and payroll records, and final dispositions of disciplinary proceedings — but not the complaint or other investigative materials.

Lawmaker calendars would be available after July 1. So, too, would be emails and texts with lobbyists and other non-legislative employees.

But all email and text exchanges between lawmakers would be exempt.

And communications with “constituents” would be exempt. Constituents are broadly defined as anyone who doesn’t register as a lobbyist or employ someone who registers as a lobbyist, a government employee who is paid to be a lobbyist, an organization that does grassroots lobbying requiring registration, and an elected official, or individuals who are acting on behalf of such persons.

If a request for a record is denied, a person could appeal. It would be reviewed by the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee or the House Executive Rules Committee, both of which are comprised of lawmakers. Under the bill their decision would be final and not subject to appeal in any court.

In contrast, if a state agency or local government denies a records request, it can be appealed to the local court.

And the bill contains an emergency clause to make it effective immediately upon enactment. This blocks anyone who might want to try to repeal it through referendum.

Speakers at Thursday’s meeting found issue with several provisions of the 24-page bill.

Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers, of which The Herald is a member, said the definition of a constituent is overly broad that it would enable communications with influential donors on critical legislation to be kept secret.

And he criticized the bill for not allowing people to seek redress in court for a denied request. That means lawmakers can “tell you ‘No,’ and ‘No’ again.”

Gordon Padget, of Vancouver, itemized his concerns about the lack of due process, the broad exemptions and the speed at which lawmakers are moving. He concluded: “Do you think the people are going to trust you as state legislators if you enact this?”

Nelson said they do not intend for constituents to be defined as broadly as implied by Thompson.

“That is not how it is drafted,” she said. “I would not consider corporations a constituent even if it was Nucor which is in my district.”

Leaders and lawyers of each caucus in the House and Senate began quietly working last month to produce language for a bill top Democrats and Republicans in each chamber could support, thus ensuring a fast and smooth trip through the Legislature.

That’s what’s occurring.

Senate leaders introduced the bill Wednesday afternoon, held the work session Thursday and prepared to vote Friday. Once passed, it will be sent to the House for a possible vote the same day. It’s the kind of rapid pace usually reserved for the final hours of a legislative session in which they are hurrying to act on critical bills, like a budget.

In this case, lawmakers are moving swiftly even as they are moving much slower on proposals to lower property taxes, ban bump-fire stocks and decide if and how they will comply with the Supreme Court’s orders on public school funding.

Nelson said as a result of the January court decision, lawmakers are getting inundated with demands for records. In some cases, the persons are showing up at legislators’ offices demanding they be handed over.

“We cannot operate under what (the judge) has ordered,” she said. “All four leaders said this is not going to work so what is our next step.”

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

This story has been modified to correct the spelling of Kasia Pierzga’s name.

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