PORT ANGELES — Two of three state lawmakers representing Clallam and Jefferson counties reacted Wednesday to a lawsuit that alleges the state Legislature is violating the state Public Records Act.
Sound Publishing — which owns the Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum on the North Olympic Peninsula — has joined a coalition of news organizations led by The Associated Press in suing the state Legislature for violating the state Public Records Act.
State Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles; Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim; and Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, all of the 24th District, are among state lawmakers who did not respond to requests from the news organizations for schedules and calendars from Jan. 9 through July 24 and text messages related to legislative duties within the same time frame.
The 24th Legislative District covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.
“Elected officials at all levels of government should be held to the same degree of transparency,” Terry Ward, publisher of the Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum, said Wednesday.
“State lawmakers giving themselves a broad exemption and not providing full access to public records does a disservice to the public.”
Ward said the public has the right to know what their legislators are doing, which includes access to their calendars and correspondence.
“I’m proud our company is standing up for the citizens of the North Olympic Peninsula by joining this lawsuit,” he said.
The reason local lawmakers didn’t respond to the request is because legal counsel advised them not to do so, Chapman and Tharinger said Wednesday.
Tharinger agrees the public has a right to know what state lawmakers are doing but added that he’s not sure showing calendars and text messages improves the public process.
“I’m not opposed to it,” he said. “I’m just not sure there’s a big advantage to it.”
The lawsuit, filed in Thurston County Superior Court on Tuesday, alleges “hundreds of highly-important records of the Washington Legislature and elected legislators are being withheld from the public, depriving the media and public of information to which it is entitled.”
It challenges lawmakers’ claim that language they added more than two decades ago to Washington’s public records law excludes them from stricter disclosure rules that apply to officials across the state, from school board members and county commissioners to agency heads.
Tharinger said the state Public Records Act (PRA) can be abused by people who are just “fishing” for information “as opposed to media who have legitimate interest.”
“I don’t have anything to hide,” he said.
Tharinger said the PRA should be “tightened up” and said he wouldn’t be opposed to a third party filtering out frivolous requests.
He referred to Edmonds resident Williams Sheehan’s July 31 public records request for Clallam County pet licensing information as an example of abuse.
The records have been made available to Sheehan, Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict said Wednesday, adding that Sheehan “has elected to not inspect them until a future date.”
Benedict said other county records, including phone numbers and addresses of law enforcement and prosecuting attorney’s office employees that were requested by Sheehan, are still being redacted.
Chapman said Wednesday in a telephone interview while in Port Angeles on Wednesday that he believes Legislature-related calendar items and text messages should be made public.
Chapman would not comment on the lawsuit on the advice of House counsel Kathy Maynard, he said.
“If it wasn’t for the lawsuit, I’d walk down there [to the PDN office] and show you my calendar,” Chapman said.
“Right now, we have a lawsuit, so I don’t think that can happen anymore.”
He said he also would make public his text messages related to legislative business.
“I communicate with constituents via text message,” Chapman said.
“I don’t do policy or bills, that sort of thing.
“When people call me and text, I usually end up emailing them.”
Chapman said the public should be aware that communication about legislative matters is a public record when they text or email a lawmaker.
Benedict said state lawmakers should fulfill the media requests for state lawmakers’ calendar information and text messages.
“I don’t see why lawmakers should get a pass on what we have to put up with to a greater degree,” Benedict said.
Besides AP and Sound Publishing, the groups involved in the lawsuit are public radio’s Northwest News Network, KING-TV, KIRO 7, Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, The Spokesman-Review, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, Tacoma News Inc. and The Seattle Times.
Van De Wege did not return calls for comment Wednesday about the lawsuit.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].