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Editorial: Indifference risks loss of access to public records

Members of the state’s Sunshine Committee are questioning how much others value its work.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Like sundials, democracy works poorly without sunshine. Washington residents may soon see much less of that sunlight shining on the work of state and local government.

Washington state’s Sunshine Committee — responsible for reviewing and helping to clear away the clouds of exemptions that block the release of government information through public records requests — may have seen its last Sunshine Week, the annual national celebration of the public’s right to know about the workings of government.

After 16 years of work to protect and more fully enable that right, citizen representatives on the 13-member committee are questioning the value of the effort being put into its review and recommendations regarding an ever-growing list of attempts to lock away that information. The committee briefly discussed its dissolution at its February meeting, but voted to put off further discussion and a decision until its May 23 meeting when it may recommend to the Legislature that the committee be dissolved.

Not because those members don’t see the value in the work they’re doing, but because few among the members of the Legislature or in the offices of the state attorney general or the governor currently appear to recognize the value of the Sunshine Committee’s efforts or the need to follow up with implementation of the committee’s findings.

One member, Kathy George, a public records lawyer and eight-year member of the committee, resigned in the middle of the February meeting.

The committee’s chair, Linda Krese, a retired Snohomish County Superior Court judge who has served for two years, has informed the governor’s office, which appoints the committee’s citizen members, that she does not wish to be reappointed when her term ends in August.

The committee, established by legislation in 2007, is responsible for reviewing the exemptions to release of public information that have accumulated over the years. When voters adopted the Public Records Act in 1972, the voters recognized the need for some exceptions to release of documents to protect privacy and sensitive information and specifically listed 10 such exceptions, George said.

But by the time the Sunshine Committee started its work, there were more than 300 exemptions that blocked the release of records. As of this year, Krese said, there are 632 exceptions, with more added each year than the committee has been able to convince lawmakers to clear out.

That’s the problem, Krese and George said; the committee’s annual report, with recommendations on which exemptions to keep, which to end and which to consider for sunset, are increasingly ignored. In at least the last four years, none of the committee’s recommendations, drafted as legislation, were adopted by the Legislature and signed into law.

This year, neither of its two recommendations were even drafted as legislation. That included, Krese said, one that recommended that the state’s public universities and colleges release information, when requested, on anonymous donations to the schools.

“Shouldn’t the public have the right to know if people are making financial donations, and how much and who they are and if there are any conditions on them or strings attached to them?” Krese asked.

Rowland Thompson, executive director for Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, which represents state newspapers’ interests in Olympia, and is also one of the committee’s citizen members, recalled a similar snub from last year: The Legislature had earlier directed the committee to review the release of records of personal information regarding the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s efforts to control wolf populations and their predation of livestock. The committee reviewed the issue and prepared its report with a recommendation for a bill, only to have it ignored, while a separate bill — drafted by Fish and Wildlife, itself — was considered and adopted by the Legislature.

“It’s ridiculous to have a committee that was created by the Legislature to handle a task, and nothing really comes of it,” Thompson said.

Meanwhile, at least one new attempt to cloud the Public Record Act is now moving along toward passage: House Bill 1533, which has passed the House and will get a public hearing Monday before the Senate’s state government committee. The legislation would prevent the release of identifying information of state employees, including K-12 public school teachers, who provide a sworn statement that the employee is a survivor of domestic or sexual abuse, stalking or harassment. Any request for information to confirm whether a covered person works for an agency or school would be met with a statement neither confirming nor denying that employment.

On its surface, the bill sounds like a reasonable protection of privacy for those who could be endangered by that information’s release, but the exemption also could be abused — and the public’s safety endangered — if someone with a criminal background or past complaints related to their work used the exemption to shield themselves from the public’s notification at a new job.

Courts, Thompson said, can offer a better shield of personal information for those threatened by abusers or stalkers than can a blanket exemption for anyone seeking to hide their past.

There is reason to doubt the collective interest of the Legislature regarding issues of the public’s right to know, at least when it involves their own records, as this editorial board has previously shared. Rather than take to heart a ruling by the state Supreme Court in 2019 that found the Public Records Act applied “plainly” to the elected members of the Legislature regarding emails, correspondence, text messages, schedules, draft legislation and more, recently some members have attempted to dubiously claim “legislative privilege” to prevent the release of those records.

However, Thompson doesn’t see a larger campaign against the public’s right to know, either in lawmakers’ proposals for new exemptions or in its indifference to the recommendations of the Sunshine Committee.

Yet the real problem is no less discouraging.

“It’s just a lack of interest,” he said. “It just doesn’t happen.”

Krese agrees. The committee isn’t empowered to draft its own legislation. That job is left to lawmakers or to the staffs of the governor’s office or the attorney general’s office, she said. And the interest in carrying out the committee’s proposals is absent.

“There’s no mechanism to make sure anyone is looking at implementation,” she said.

But without that mechanism, Krese no longer sees a purpose to her efforts or that of the committee’s other members.

“If I’m going to volunteer my time, it would be more productive, frankly, to be at the food bank packing groceries for people,” she said.

What suffers, George said, is the fundamental right that state voters claimed for themselves more than 50 years ago.

“The Legislature has just added more and more and more exceptions to the general rule that the people should know what their government is doing,” George said. “Because that’s how the people participate. That’s how they learn about and hold government accountable. The more exceptions you carve out the less ability the public has to monitor what government is doing.”

At the moment, that’s 632 exceptions and counting.

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