News media and lawmakers to resume clash over public records

As litigation continues over access to legislators’ records, a task force will begin meeting next month.

OLYMPIA — A task force will begin meeting next month to sort out political obstacles and legal hurdles to getting lawmakers to disclose their records to the public.

What’s envisioned is a conversation on lawmakers’ concerns with releasing emails, texts, investigative reports and other materials and the media’s demand they do so, like other elected officials, in accordance with the state Public Records Act.

On Monday, the Senate Facilities and Operation Committee approved a work plan for the panel, which will have eight lawmakers — two each from the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate — plus three representatives of Washington-based media sources, three members of the public with experience accessing and managing public records, and one representative of an open government organization.

Lawmakers budgeted $50,000 for the William D. Ruckelshaus Center to play moderator. A report containing findings and recommendations is due before the 2019 legislative session.

The exercise will not lead to a proposed legislative solution.

That’s because a coalition of media organizations led by The Associated Press sued last year to compel lawmakers to hand over their records. The plaintiffs included The Daily Herald’s parent, Sound Publishing. In January, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled that lawmakers and their offices are subject to the public records law. The next stop for the lawsuit is the state Supreme Court.

“We’re not getting a bill. What is valuable is we’re getting issues flushed out so we can find some common ground,” said state Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood, a member of the Senate committee.

“We need to have an open discussion,” he said. “I felt like the dialogue that the Legislature and the media had last session was very adversarial. We need something like this to try and understand each other.”

Weeks after the ruling, lawmakers moved at breakneck speed to get around the decision. Without public hearings, the Senate and House passed a bill to disclose such items as calendars, lobbyist emails and final dispositions of disciplinary proceedings. But it would have exempted emails exchanged between lawmakers and constituents.

The action prompted an outcry from media outlets and spurred several thousand residents to urge Gov. Jay Inslee to veto the bill.

He did, but only after getting majority Democrats to agree to a task force and leaders of the media coalition to participate.

All meetings will be open to the public.

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

This story has been modified to more precisely describe the implications of the bill vetoed by the governor.

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