They are more general suggestions than specific marching orders, but a task force intended to provide guidelines on how state lawmakers will apply the state Public Records Act to themselves and their work has released a draft of its report that makes it clear legislators should strive for greater transparency when they address the issue next session.
That transparency is a requirement born out of the state Public Records Act, created by citizen initiative in 1972, that plainly states its necessity: The public’s request for documents and records should be respected because it is the public that provides state and local government its agency and supports it with its tax dollars.
A quick recap:
For decades, state legislators have attempted to excuse themselves from provisions of the Public Records Act, which requires elected officials, state agencies and all forms of local government to comply with specific requests for public records and documents. A Thurston County Superior Court judge in January sided with a media coalition — which includes The Herald’s Sound Publishing — that sought to clearly apply the provisions of the state’s public records law to state lawmakers.
Lawmakers responded during this year’s session by working secretly to craft new legislation that — rather than requiring lawmakers to comply with the records act — sought to create a new act that would have allowed a limited release of a few types of records but otherwise would have largely exempted legislators from responding to legitimate requests.
In the course of about 48 hours, lawmakers introduced, considered and adopted a bill with little opportunity for public comment and no debate among lawmakers. The bill’s passage was quickly followed by a barrage of front-page editorials among the state’s newspapers and public backlash that swamped the governor’s office with calls and emails demanding his veto of the bill. After some lawmakers reconsidered and joined in that request, Gov. Jay Inslee obliged.
In the aftermath, lawmakers agreed to continuing discussions before a task force that include eight lawmakers and representatives from the press, local government and open government advocates. Meeting four times since September, last week the task force released its recommendations but also outlined an issue for which it couldn’t come to consensus.
Among its recommendations — starting with the basic call for greater transparency — the task force supported:
The need to protect the privacy of those communicating with lawmakers, recognizing the existing protections outlined in the records act, but adding narrowly crafted exemptions as needed;
Protections for whistle-blowers in their communication with lawmakers;
Establishing separate offices in the House and Senate to handle record requests;
Provision for an independent process for handling disputes and obtaining an independent advisory opinion on whether a record should be disclosed; and
Defining what constitutes a harassing request for public records.
All the above are reasonable provisions that should guide lawmakers on drafting legislation that would clearly outline how lawmakers can comply with the records act.
What the panel could not find consensus on was whether lawmakers’ deliberative process — the internal communications among lawmakers related to drafting and passing legislation — should be allowed exemptions from records request.
In the task force’s final meeting, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, raised the concern that lawmakers could face “blowback” from constituents if the public saw how compromises are reached in Olympia. Others have said it could open lawmakers to criticism over the legislative “thought process” or discourage consideration of worthy ideas.
But as with the concern for constituent privacy in email communications, this hasn’t been a major concern for those who already are in compliance with the public records act, including city and county councils, school boards and more. There’s been little objection heard from local governments that their compliance with the Public Records Act has chilled communication and participation from constituents.
That should provide state lawmakers with confidence that greater transparency for the legislative process will result in greater understanding and support for their work among the public. Lawmakers need to have more faith in their constituents’ ability to appreciate the role of compromise in reaching consensus on legislation.
Lawmakers should keep in mind that they felt the greatest “blowback” most recently when they shied away from transparency and attempted to keep their records and communications from the public.