District 24 legislators vote for public records exemption bill

OLYMPIA — The three legislators who represent District 24 voted in favor of a bill they say improves public transparency of the legislative process.

The legislators are Sen. Kevin Van De Wege and Reps. Steve Tharinger and Mike Chapman. All three are Democrats; Van De Wege and Tharinger are from Sequim while Chapman is from Port Angeles. Their district covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Gray’s Harbor County.

Chapman said Saturday that he voted for SB 6617 because it gave him the authority to release information. Otherwise, he said, he was hamstrung by a pending court case,

“I will release any email I receive,” Chapman said. “I will release any document that comes into my office. I will release any calendar item. I will release text messages,” although, he specified, he will not release personal text messages.

“I will release everything” except personal texts, Chapman said. “If you ask for it, you got it.”

Tharinger said in a written statement issued Friday: “The measure we approved this week (SB 6617) is the largest expansion of legislative records being opened to the public in over two decades. Once the bill goes into effect on July 1, 2018, more legislative records will be subject to public disclosure.”

He said that will include legislators’ calendars, including the names and dates of individuals and organizations with whom they’ve met; legislators’ correspondence on legislative business to and from lobbyists and other people who are paid to influence legislation; final dispositions of investigations and disciplinary proceedings by administrative committees that oversee the House and Senate; and any other records lawmakers choose to disclose.

He and Van De Wege — who spoke to the PDN about the issue on Thursday — both said that some information should remain private.

They both mentioned protecting constituent privacy.

“Our first job is to work on behalf of our constituents,” Tharinger’s statement said. “If they do not have confidence that their private correspondence will remain private, we cannot do our jobs.”

They both talked about protecting the free flow of ideas. “Legislators shouldn’t have to worry about asking dumb questions, or having bad ideas, if these never see the light of day,” Tharinger’s statement said. “Likewise, staff should feel free sharing advice.”

Another concern both discussed were that some requests could be “political fishing expeditions,” in which offices are buried in paperwork.

Van De Wege also said that the court order issued by Thurston County superior court “is unworkable. “It treats individual members as separate government agencies” and would mean that all 147 members of the Legislature would be required to adopt Washington Administration Code and individual disclosure policies.

But he also said that the legislation makes more information disclosable than is now the case.

“The bill says that everything from a paid lobbyist is disclosable but communications from constituents is not,” Van De Wege said. “I think that’s great.”

Sandy Stokes with the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association described that veiw as “disingenuous.”

“What the law really does is shield from disclosure communication with anyone who is not officially registered as a lobbyist in the state of Washington,” Stokes said in a statement issued Saturday.

“This opens the door to abuse, as representatives of large corporations, lawyers for special interests and mega donors can be treated as ‘constituents’ whose privacy needs protecting.”

Both Van De Wege and Tharinger said that the legislation is “a first step.”

“While I don’t support the quick manner in which this bill was passed, I do support making our legislature more transparent,” Tharinger said.

Said Van De Wege: “If aspects of this plan do not work in practice, I am open to looking at additional ways we can ensure the Legislature operates in a way that is more transparent.”

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Executive Editor Leah Leach can be reached at 360-417-3530 or at [email protected].

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