By The Herald Editorial Board
Well, that was quick.
And that speed and the break with usual legislative practice should tell you that something is not right and that the state’s lawmakers know it.
In about 48 hours — less time than it took the Legislature last year to consider and adopt a budget with a state government shutdown looming — state lawmakers introduced, considered and adopted a bill that largely exempts them from the state Public Records Act.
We are repeating our earlier appeal to Gov. Jay Inslee — who returns home today from the National Governors Association meeting — that he veto Senate Bill 6617 and force both the Senate and House to reconsider a measure that was rushed through an undemocratic process and allows lawmakers full and unchecked discretion in deciding what documents they will release to the public.
Further, lawmakers should take note that any vote by individual lawmakers to override a veto by the governor will disqualify them for consideration of an endorsement by The Herald Editorial Board in future elections. All 98 House of Representative seats are up for election this year, as are 24 of the 49 Senate seats.
We hope that voters would also seriously reconsider their support for any lawmaker who has supported this legislation.
Again, lawmakers are being asked to follow a law that is already the expectation for almost all other public officials, state agencies and all forms of local government. These are public records because they belong to the public that gives government its agency.
Created by citizen initiative in 1972, the Public Records Act requires elected officials, state agencies and local governments to comply with specific requests for public records and documents. For decades, however, one of the major exceptions have been state legislators, who have successfully exempted themselves from abiding by the act’s provisions.
What prompted lawmakers’ hurried response this session was their loss last month in Thurston County Superior Court. Judge Chris Lanese ruled in favor of a coalition of media members, including The Herald’s Sound Publishing, which had filed suit after the denial of a recent request that sought emails, work calendars and any staff complaints involving alleged sexual harassment by lawmakers from each of the 147 legislators.
Lanese’s decision ruled that the unambiguous language of the Public Records Act applies directly to the offices of state senators and representatives.
Rather than abide by the court ruling, the Legislature adopted a bill that fails in its provisions and in the manner in which it was adopted.
Other than a one-hour work session on Thursday, there were no public hearings on SB 6617.
There were no amendments, save for a change by one of its prime sponsors to correct a typo.
And there was no debate.
Of the 14 House members who voted against the bill, none spoke in opposition, because, as The Spokesman-Review reported Friday, opponents were told not to speak against it.
“This is the kind of bill where I would not be surprised that threats were made,” Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, told The Seattle Times.
The legislation does make provision for release of some documents, specifically emails between lawmakers and lobbyists, some lawmaker calendar entries and the final dispositions of legislative investigations. Otherwise, release of documents is left to each lawmaker’s discretion, including emails among legislators.
Among its provisions:
- Using privacy concerns disingenuously as a cover, the legislation shields emails between lawmakers and “constituents,” allowing a broad definition that extends beyond ordinary citizens to include those corporate, union and other special interests that do not register as lobbyists. Any legitimate privacy concerns for the safety of private individuals can be fully addressed through provisions in the Public Records Act, which allows for redaction of identifying information.
- Other than final dispositions outlining a disciplinary decision, it would block the release of documents related to complaints, such as those regarding sexual harassment involving lawmakers, staff or lobbyists.
- An appeal of a decision to deny a particular record is decided by legislative offices in the House or Senate, with no avenue to appeal to the courts.
- The legislation becomes law upon the governor’s signature or the Legislature’s override of his veto and it is retroactive, which should be interpreted as an attempt to nullify Judge Lanese’s decision.
Of the region’s seven senators and 14 representatives, only two — 44th District Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, and 39th District Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley — voted against the bill. (10th District Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, was recorded as excused and did not vote on the measure.)
Those voting to adopt SB 6617 include (District 1) Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby; Rep. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell; Rep. Shelley Kloba, D-Kirkland; (District 10) Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor; Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island; (District 21) Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood; Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds; Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo; (District 32) Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline; Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline; Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle; (District 38) Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip; Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett; Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett; (District 39) Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish; Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan (District 44) Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens; and Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek.
Some lawmakers will object to our withholding of future endorsements as being akin to single-issue voting.
This is not a solitary issue. The Public Records Act, which holds government and officials answerable to the people, is a fundamental requirement of representative democracy.
Respect for and adherence to the Public Records Act affects all other issues that the Legislature considers. The act ensures that the public can be fully informed of the workings of government and how it arrives at its decisions.
Government cannot operate in the interests of the public without the act in full force.