By the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin Editorial Board
State law requires elected officials to fully comply with the Public Records Act. The exception has been the folks who write the state’s laws: senators and representatives.
This is wrong. If the records of city council members, county commissioners and school board members are open to the public, the records of state lawmakers should be too.
Yet, despite years of trying to resolve this incongruity, the Legislature continues to want to exempt its members from some aspects of the Public Records Act.
A lawsuit was filed by news organizations to force lawmakers to release records. A Thurston County judge sided with The Associated Press and other entities by ruling that individual lawmakers and their offices are subject to the public records law. But rather than appeal to the state Supreme Court, a task force was formed in the hope of finding a way to address lawmakers’ concerns about making records public.
Last week, the task force held its first meeting, which proved to be a positive step in the proper direction.
“I’m here to negotiate. I hope we can come up with an agreement,” said state Sen. Kevin Van de Wege, D-Sequim. The public wants more disclosure, he added, and “that is the direction we should move toward.”
The 15-member panel comprises eight lawmakers — divided evenly between Republican and Democrats — three media representatives, three members of the public and an open government advocate.
Given the diversity of backgrounds of the panel, it’s unlikely getting a consensus will be swift or easy. Nevertheless, if the group can get a clear vision of where it wants to go, the process should be productive.
And this is what members attempted to do at the meeting last week.
Ultimately, we agree with the approach pitched by task force member Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. He said the panel should try to figure out how to ensure lawmakers abide by the Public Records Act as do leaders of cities, counties and state agencies. This is about doing what’s best for the public, not the elected lawmakers.
Over the course of the task force’s meetings, let’s hope the group comes to an understanding that transparency in government — at all levels — is essential.
The above editorial appeared in Monday’s Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.