Some state lawmakers may be counting on you, gentle readers, to have forgotten all of that unpleasantness in February: When they hurried a bill to passage in less than 48 hours that would have largely exempted themselves from the Public Records Act, the state law that ensures that public agencies and officials will release to the public upon its request the documents regarding their actions, the records that belong to the people.
You remember what happened next: Most of the state’s daily newspapers published front-page editorials criticizing the process and the proposed legislation. And you responded with a flood of emails, phone calls and text messages to individual lawmakers and to Gov. Jay Inslee, urging him to veto the bill. And he did, after receiving a written pledge from 27 lawmakers that they would “make it right” by engaging in a public process “over the next nine months to make recommendations to the 2019 Legislature regarding the release of legislative records.”
Nearly six months in to that “next nine months,” party leaders in the House and Senate have only recently appointed legislative members to a task force that is to meet for the first time Sept. 5 and compile recommendations by the end of the year.
It doesn’t instill a lot of confidence that lawmakers — who took about the same length of time to consider their bill that it takes for concrete to set — waited until now to begin work with the task force. Nor does it provide great hope for a good result that all eight lawmakers on the panel — four Democrats and four Republicans — all voted for Senate Bill 6617 after little debate and no opportunity for public comment.
On the plus side, however, are the backgrounds of the remaining seven members of the task force and the organization moderating the effort. The process is being shepherded by The William D. Ruckleshaus Center, the joint public policy advocacy organization that recently assisted in a review of the Snohomish Health District and facilitated work of the Joint SR 530 Landslide Commission that issued a report on responses to the 2014 Oso landslide.
Among the task force’s other seven members are three members of the media, including the deputy managing editor of The Seattle Times; open government advocate Toby Nixon, himself a former lawmaker; and three members of the public, including David Ammons, a former Associated Press reporter and now member of the state’s Public Disclosure Commission, and Candice Bock, government relations director for the Association of Washington Cities, whose member cities have long complied, if sometimes grudgingly, with the Public Records Act.
The task force’s work will be of little value if what comes out of it are more justifications for the legislation that lawmakers attempted to pass earlier this year.
In conversations with lawmakers as part of the editorial board’s endorsement process thus far, most incumbents have apologized for how the bill was handled but have maintained that there are reasons to withhold some materials, specifically emails and other communications with constituents or whistle-blowers, in the interest of protecting their privacy and their personal information.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to ensure those protections, but there’s also nothing in the administration of the Public Records Act that can’t and hasn’t already protected privacy and personal information in records requests from a host of public officials and agencies, including cities, counties, ports, school districts and more. Sensitive information and anything that could be used to identify a constituent or a whistle-blower can be reasonably redacted from the requested documents.
We hope the lawmakers on the panel will be open to the perspectives of their fellow task force members as they work to develop effective rules for lawmakers as they comply with the Public Records Act, which has been law since created by citizen initiative in 1972.
And we also hope that, in the weeks remaining until the General Election, those who wrote their lawmakers decrying Senate Bill 6617 and asked the governor to repeal it are quizzing incumbents seeking re-election and their challengers about their support for full government transparency.
They may need to be reminded that you haven’t forgotten.