Editorials

Other elected officials comply with public records laws. Washington state legislators should figure it out

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, right, co-chairman of the Legislative Task Force on Public Records, tells media attorney Kathy George that lawmakers should be able to keep some of their records from the public just as newspapers sometimes use anonymous sources. King is flanked by Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, the group’s other co-chairman.,
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, right, co-chairman of the Legislative Task Force on Public Records, tells media attorney Kathy George that lawmakers should be able to keep some of their records from the public just as newspapers sometimes use anonymous sources. King is flanked by Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, the group’s other co-chairman., The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review

The task force charged with hashing out how the Legislature should handle public records requests has pushed the conversation in the right direction, but the controversy lingers.

As the discussion continues — which it surely will — we encourage lawmakers to reach out to city council members, county commissioners, school board officials and the heads of government agencies to find out how they comply with the state Public Records Act.

If these elected officials can do it, so can our legislators.

The public records task force began meeting in September and finished up its work last week. On a positive note, it agreed the Legislature should strive for more transparency — vague advice, but it’s something.

Of concern, however, is the group failed to reach a consensus on how to manage documents that would disclose the “deliberative process,” which is to say, how legislators reach decisions behind closed doors.

Task force member Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said legislators could face blowback from constituents if citizens were able to see how lawmakers reach compromises.

This kind of legislative resistance to working in the open is exactly what the public and the media are fighting against.

Lawmakers are paid by the public to conduct public business, and the public should be allowed to monitor how that job is being performed. “Blowback” is a good way to gauge public sentiment.

It was “blowback” that stopped the Legislature from trying to exempt itself from the state Public Records Act last spring, and “blowback” that forced the creation of the task force.

In the fall of 2017, 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.

After the court ruled in favor of the media, lawmakers secretly crafted a bill creating a new set of public records rules that would apply only to them.

The proposal also prohibited the possibility of running a public referendum to overturn the new law if it went into effect. Legislators declared it an emergency measure so they could bypass the proper public hearing process and pushed it through in less than 48 hours.

The plan was so shameful that journalists across the state cried foul and the public responded with a phone-calling blitz to Gov. Jay Inslee, demanding he veto the bill. He did, and the task force was formed.

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

While legislators said they would craft a new proposal for next year based on task force recommendations, we don’t think those recommendations are solid enough to be used as a foundation for new legislation.

More discussion is needed. Many lawmakers still are concerned with guarding the privacy of constituents who contact them, and we understand that.

But if people are asking legislators to use public money on their behalf, then that’s public business.

If other elected officials — like the state attorney general and the governor — are able to work within the public records law and still protect constituents, then legislators can do the same. Exemptions already exist to protect victims and sensitive information.

Another concern lawmakers bring up is they believe each legislator will have to handle records requests individually.

Other elected officials don’t do that — there is someone in their organization paid to do it for them.

Surely administrators for the Senate and the House of Representatives could figure out a way to manage this task for their members. Even if it means hiring staff, it would be worth it for the sake of creating a more open government.

Again, if legislators would look at how other elected officials manage to comply with the state Public Records Act, they would see it isn’t has problematic as they think.

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