Earlier this week the editorial board expressed hope, tinged with skepticism, that a 15-member task force that is set to start meeting Sept. 5 could find some resolution as to how state legislators will comply with the Public Records Act, the state law that requires nearly all other public agencies and officials to release public documents, including emails, when requested.
Our hopes were buoyed by the inclusion on the task force of members of the press and open government advocates and in the organization selected to mediate those conversations, the William D. Ruckelshaus Center.
The skepticism was in reaction to two items. Legislative leaders waited six months between lawmakers’ own call for such a task force and the announcement of the panel and its first meeting. And all eight of the legislative members of the panel voted for the controversial legislation, SB 6617, which sought to largely exempt lawmakers from complying with the Public Records Act. The bill passed by a veto-proof margin, was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee, following a barrage of calls and emails to lawmakers and the governor demanding a veto.
Republican leadership in the House added further weight to the skepticism side of the scale with the announcement that Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, would remain on the panel despite statements over the weekend at a gun-rights rally that referred to journalists as “those dirty, godless, hateful people” and complaining the news media puts “innuendo and implications into their articles and editorials.”
Whether Shea’s opinion of the news media is based on complaints real or imagined, he shoudn’t serve on a panel on which he will be in direct discussions with those he considers “dirty, godless, hateful people.”
Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, the current House minority leader, told The Spokesman-Review that he doesn’t share Shea’s views or experiences with the media. He nevertheless defended Shea’s participation on the public records panel.
“His job is to reflect the caucus, not just his own views,” Wilcox said.
Shea’s opinion of the media is a problem for the panel, especially when tied to an apparent lack of respect for the work for which the media is responsible in demanding transparency and openness from government agencies and officials. But his attitude toward the media chiefly raises significant doubts about his ability to work cooperatively with members of the press in this matter.
And if Shea’s job with the panel is to reflect the perspective of the caucus, that’s something that can be handled by any House Republican.
Wilcox and fellow legislators should consider another to represent lawmakers on the panel. We’ll suggest two candidates, both Republicans who will be familiar to Snohomish County residents.
Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, was one of only seven House members who voted against SB 6617. First elected in 2014, Harmsworth served two terms on the Mill Creek City Council and, thus, has familiarity with the requirements of the Public Records Act.
Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, served as leader of the House Republican Caucus from 2013 until the end of this year’s legislative session. As such, Kristiansen has the respect of fellow lawmakers in both parties. The fact that Kristiansen is not running for re-election could also allow him to speak more freely on issues related to access of public records.
It will be up to the voters in Shea’s district to determine if his rank animosity toward the news media should factor into their support for his re-election. But as he would be representing all state residents as a member of a panel of great interest and importance to the public, Shea has disqualified himself from participation, and lawmakers should not want him speaking on their behalf.