Give state lawmakers this much: At least now, they are willing to hold hearings, sans skullduggery, in their ongoing attempt to hide their business from the very public that elected them.
You may recall that last year the state Legislature passed a bill, without any vetting or debate and at the last possible moment, to exempt itself from the Public Records Act that applies to all elected officials and agencies, from the governor to city council members. The action came after a Thurston County judge ruled that lawmakers had been illegally withholding documents from the news media and constituents. Only after a howling outcry from the public, and a veto by Gov. Jay Inslee, did the Legislature retreat from its ambush.
Now, lawmakers are back with new bill, SB 5784, that dresses up the Legislature’s cloak of secrecy in slightly different language, but with the same result: severely limiting what the public has a right to see and know, as dictated by the 1972 voter initiative that became the Public Records Act.
Sen. Jamie Petersen (D-Seattle), the bill’s chief sponsor, has talked a good game, saying the new legislation gives people “a higher level of transparency.” He is being disingenuous, at best, trying to sell the public on the basic premise that the Legislature should receive special consideration because it is, well, the Legislature. The Legislature’s intransigence on its own transparency this time around at least was being exposed to the light of day at a Wednesday committee hearing, as opposed to last year’s skulking around. That, however, doesn’t make their proposed actions any more palatable. Lawmakers are trotting out the same arguments for its attempt to (a) keep secret the “deliberative process” of how they arrive at decisions; (b) permanently conceal documents, including witness statements and investigative reports, into complaints about sexual or workplace harassment in the state House and Senate; (c) redact the identities of all email correspondence between a legislator and constituent, unless the person is a registered lobbyist; (d) exempt itself from releasing any public records in a timely manner, in effect, delaying any document release while the Legislature is in session.
Note that all of the above exemptions on the Legislature’s wish-list are applied to members in other state agencies as a matter of course and, mostly, without complaint, in the 47 years since the Public Records Act was adopted. Even local law enforcement agencies, which are given some privacy protection while criminal cases are still active, must eventually release witness statements, emails and other records that might show an agency’s response to complaints.
It is a stunning act of hubris for the Legislature to put itself above even law enforcement. Local elected officials, too, scratch their heads at state legislator’s attempts to make a case of secrecy. During last fall’s legislative task force meetings on public records, several municipal officials testified that their compliance with the Public Records Act is simply part of the job and, well, no big deal.
After Wednesday’s legislative committee meeting, Bellevue City Council member Jennifer Robertson took to Twitter and wrote: “City Councils are also legislators and receive information from constituents and staff about many topics. If it’s not exempt for cities, it shouldn’t be exempt for state legislators. The Legislature should live under the same laws as other Govt agencies.”
Several open government advocates and representatives from media organizations, in testimony at Wednesday’s hearing, tried to explain to lawmakers the importance of transparency in government, why the Legislature needs to release preliminary drafts and email correspondence – all standard procedure for every other elected official in the state.
“When a bill is passed, I think people need to see how that is done,” said David Zeeck, former publisher of The News Tribune of Tacoma and president of The Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington. “It seems more like the Soviet Duma, where you see the Legislature get together and we all raise our hands and vote. You have no idea what went on behind that, that got us to this place.”
Releasing documents showing deliberations, Zeeck added, “ensures public confidence in the process. (The public) can determine, ‘OK, I see how they got there.’ If you don’t know anything but the decision, you can’t as a citizen judge what’s going on.”
On another front, lawmakers expressed concern that releasing the identities of those who email legislators might keep them from coming forth in, for instance, an investigation into sexual harassment involving a House or Senate member. But the proposed bill goes further, withholding all witness statements, not merely the names of the victim. Petersen worried that, if lawmakers disclosed sensitive emails, newspapers would print names of victims. Open government activists have pointed out that their identities can be exempted under current law.
Petersen mused to reporters afterward that his bill might “die in committee,” leaving the decision of the Legislature’s failure to release records up to the State Supreme Court. It shouldn’t have to reach that stage. All the public is asking is for the Legislature to follow the rules of the Public Records Act. Why is that so hard for them to grasp?
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Sam McManis