Editorials

When it comes to public records, lawmakers need to get over themselves

State lawmakers never would have tried to exempt themselves from the public records law last spring if they didn’t believe they deserve special treatment.

That’s a hang-up that’s got to go if the new public records task force is going to be successful.

The group met for the first time last week, and it appears there are still some lawmakers who don’t fully understand the importance of public transparency.

The Seattle Times reported that one legislator on the task force, state Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, told media members, “It would be really helpful to clearly understand what it is you’re after.”

Another lawmaker on the panel, state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, asked a similar question of the media, The Times reported.

Well, we can answer their queries easily: We want the Legislature to operate under the same public disclosure laws as other governing bodies – city councils, public agencies, and the governor.

It should not be a difficult concept to grasp.

And yet, the task force would not have been formed if lawmakers didn’t have concerns about how they can comply with public records requests.

About a year ago, several Washington news organizations sought certain work-related documents from all 147 lawmakers, and were denied by nearly all of them. A court case ensued and the media won.

In response, the Legislature rammed through a bill that created a new set of public record rules that would apply only to them. The public and journalists were outraged, and the governor’s office was bombarded with phone calls and emails.

Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the measure and the task force was formed.

It is made up of eight legislators, three representatives from the media, three from the public and one from an open government organization.

A concern lawmakers repeatedly make is that they receive correspondence from many people, and they want to ensure they can protect the private information of constituents and whistleblowers.

We get that.

But if they think they are the only elected officials who have to deal with sensitive information from individuals needing help, they are wrong.

For instance, consider the job of State Attorney General Bob Ferguson. His office routinely handles complaints from residents that include private information.

Ferguson recently met with the Tri-City Herald Editorial Board, and he said the Consumer Protection division of his office, especially, handles sensitive issues.

People who have been scammed, for example, will write about not only their financial problems, but their embarrassment at being swindled. It’s touchy stuff, but his office doesn’t get any special exemption from the Public Records Act.

It doesn’t need it. The Public Records Act already includes a massive list of exemptions that guards personal information.

Lawmakers on the task force should learn how to work within the current system rather than find ways around it. If an agency like the state Office of the Attorney General can do it, so can the Legislature.

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