The Daily Evergreen

Don’t let state legislators hide what should be public

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Skipping both public testimony and debate, bipartisan state legislators came together in record time to make their branch of government the least transparent in the state.

The bill they passed, SB 6617, retroactively exempts thousands of records from public scrutiny. Barring a veto from the governor, the bill will undermine a ruling by the Thurston County Superior Court, which found that legislators, like state agencies, are subject to the Public Records Act.

Legislators have argued that the act should not apply to them because they are not state agencies, and that their conversations with constituents should be private.

Co-sponsor and local Sen. Mark Schoesler wrote in an email that the bill is not perfect, but in the face of an “unworkable” court order, it is progress. The Daily Evergreen, along with newspapers across the state, believe this bill is an untenable effort to hide information from the public.

The Evergreen has requested scores of records over the past year, using them to uncover a lawsuit against WSU administrators, hazing allegations and million-dollar employment contracts. Sometimes going to your leaders and questioning their actions isn’t enough. Sometimes the only way to hold a leader accountable is to request the evidence and confront them with the undeniable.

While the legislation gives access to records that were previously denied, such as calendars and correspondence with lobbyists, it still allows for leeway in interpretation and exempts most of their past records from scrutiny. According to the bill, legislators’ records on their business generated before July 1, 2018, are not included in this bill.

If the governor signs this bill into law, which was rushed through the legislative process in three days with little public comment, legislators will have carved out an exemption for themselves that applies to few other public servants.

Gov. Jay Inslee has five days to sign the bill after it passes, meaning that if he does not veto it by today, these exemptions will become law. Even if he does take action, the Legislature could still override that veto and it would become law. Only public pressure and political shaming would keep them from overriding it.

Local legislators Joe Schmick of Colfax and Mary Dye of Pomeroy said their main justification for voting in favor of the bill was that the requirements of the Public Records Act are too onerous and time-consuming, and could turn their part-time legislative duties into full-time jobs.

The president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, Toby Nixon, called that argument “baloney”.

“They seem to not be aware or are willfully ignoring the fact that the Public Records Act allows agencies to designate somebody in a different agency to be their public records officer,” he said. “They’re just panicking that each individual legislator would have to have a public records officer.”

According to RCW 42.56.570 of the Public Records Act, state agencies must have their own public records officer or appoint someone from another agency to handle their public records requests. The new bill would put responsibility for public records on the chief clerk of the House of Representatives and secretary of the Senate, a duty Nixon said could have been delegated to them under existing law.

Some have argued that the state Legislature has just followed in the courts’ footsteps, making special public records rules for themselves. Nixon noted a few problems with that comparison.

After two years of reviews and feedback from the public and stakeholders, the courts adopted their own set of rules regarding public records, the GR 31.1. In contrast, the Legislature only gave the public a few days to respond or review this new bill.

In addition to their state agency concerns, Schmick and Dye said they are afraid opening up their records would violate their constituents’ privacy. If elected officials really had their constituents’ best interests in mind, they would find a solution that didn’t retroactively block the public from examining their past.

The dishonest spin that accompanied the passage of this bill and the blatant disregard for normal legislative process is an insult to the intelligence and will of the people this governing body represents.

When it comes to government overreach, we don’t have to stay silent. Our most powerful weapon as a generation is our mastery of social media and our passion for change. The Legislature just set a terrible example for the entire state. We have the responsibility to take a stand before secrecy is normalized.

 

Call, email or tweet your representative and governor. File a public records request while you still can. Staying silent will do us no good.

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Don’t let state legislators hide what should be public