Weeks of prevaricating, posturing and pontificating have concluded, and what we’ve mostly heard from Washington legislators on the state’s Public Records Task Force have been vague and abstract musings on why the existing Public Records Act should not apply to them, followed last week by a list of recommendations as weak as coffee filtered through a sweat sock.
In sum, more of the same. State lawmakers simply are too stubborn — or perhaps are not self-aware enough — to acknowledge the simple truth that they are not some special political body above the law and require a different, more secretive set of rules. They need, in short, to get over themselves and comply with the law. Period. Instead, they spent the past two and a half months in hearings trying to justify their supposed special status, cloaked in evasive language and disingenuous talking points.
Really, the mandate on state government transparency is cut and dried: The voter-approved Public Records Act, passed in 1972, specifies that all public officials, from city council members and county commissioners to the state’s attorney general, release emails and other documents about the state’s business under public-disclosure requirements. Yet, legislators, in the four meetings of the task force, stubbornly hewed to their belief that they should be exempt from the law because … well, because they are legislators and they are above such watch-dog accountability.
Remember, a Thurston County judge, in a suit brought by 10 media organizations, has ruled that legislators had been illegally withholding documents from the public — in this case, emails, work-related text messages, official calendars and disciplinary records. The Legislature, in response, then tried to sneak through a bill to exempt itself from the Public Records Act, which Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed after more than 20,000 citizen complaints flooded into his office.
So, that is two strikes against the Legislature’s secret maneuvering. The body has appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, which is expected to hear the case. Before a possible third strike from the justices, the Legislature, perhaps thinking it would be good optics and placate critics, agreed to hold hearings featuring lawmakers from each chamber, as well as representatives from the media and open-government groups. The ostensible purpose was to forge a series of recommendations that the full Legislature could then vote on in the coming session, avoiding judicial rule.
In reality, the meetings amounted to little more than political theater – more Samuel Beckett absurdist wordplay than dark Kafkaesque nightmare.
State Senators Curtis King (R-Yakima) and Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim) seemed not to grasp the basic tenets of the Public Records Act and acted mystified as to why the media might want to see documents. (Hint: accountability). Van De Wege went so far as to equating open records to Christmas presents doled out to constituents and the media — only if they’re good! But the height (or depth) of obtuse lawmaker musing worthy of “Waiting for Godot” came from Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland). Asked, point-blank why the Legislature believes it should be exempt, he said, “It’s perhaps a little binary to simply answer the question … a more important question is, in an effort to be transparent, as open, as possible, are there things we need to change in the way we deal with information in the Legislature?”
Huh? Say what?
As late as last week’s final meeting, legislators still didn’t get it. Before finalizing the toothless recommendations such as a vow to “strive” for transparency, they engaged in more hand-wringing. Van De Wege lamented that lawmakers “have a lot of angst” about disclosing emails. (The media, in its suit, sought email exchanges from lawmakers and education lobbyists regarding the McCleary school funding issue and records on disciplinary actions on sexual misconduct involving members.)
King, Van De Wege and Sen. Randi Becker (R-Enumclaw) expressed concern that confidential information of constituents, such as whistleblowers, need to be protected from public disclosures. They seemingly brushed off the fact that the Public Records Act already includes more than 500 such exemptions, including one for whistleblowers. Still, in the final recommendations, lawmakers insisted on including a nebulously worded loophole that they can add “narrowly crafted exemptions as needed.”
Lawmakers were equally squeamish about revealing details of the “deliberative process” — how deals are negotiated behind closed doors — even after the bill is passed and signed into law. Becker warned that “we will never have people run for office” if deliberations were made public even after the fact, forgetting that such public disclosure hasn’t deterred scores of people from vying for, say, city council seats all over the state. King argued the public doesn’t need such information because a final bill speaks for itself. He was troubled that his constituents might see how he compromised on certain legislation along the way, saying, “Someone back home is going to say, ‘You sold us down the river.’”
Aside from the fact that lawmakers should have to answer for votes — the public is their bosses, after all — the Public Records Act already has protections for the deliberative process regarding draft proposals and preliminary talks. But King and others wondered whether Legislators need even more protection because this statewide body has “constitutional privilege.” The fact that the task force’s deliberation itself was being streamed live on TVW’s website with no ill effects seemed to escape King’s notice.
Legislators, simply, need to realize they are no different than other public officials who enact laws. They do not deserve special treatment; they are wholly accountable to us. As Pierce County Councilman Derek Young pointedly told the task force in an early meeting, adhering to the Public Records Act is “the price of doing government.”
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis.