Legislators talk about public records legislation

FORKS — A failed bill to exempt state lawmakers from the Public Records Act is worth a second look and a more transparent roll out, North Olympic Peninsula legislators said.

Senate Bill 6617, which was rushed through the legislature without debate last month, was vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee amid public outcry March 1.

The controversial bill would have exempted the House and Senate from the voter-approved Public Records Act and created the Legislature’s own rules for disclosure.

Representatives of the 24th District said the bill would have improved transparency by making certain records public, including calendars and emails with registered lobbyists created after July 1, while protecting sensitive correspondence with constituents.

“I still believe it’s a good bill, and there’s a good chance it might even become law someday,” state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege said in a District 24 town hall in Forks on Thursday.

District 24 covers Clallam, Jefferson and parts of Grays Harbor County, including Hoquiam and Ocean Shores.

“A lot of folks say that we exempted ourselves (from the Public Records Act),” Van De Wege said. “We were already exempt.”

A crowd of about 50 attended the town hall at the Rainforest Arts Center in Forks.

During the question-and-answer session, retired schoolteacher and longtime Forks resident Donna Moulton asked Van De Wege and state Reps. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, and Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, why they voted for SB 6617 without debate or public input.

“I think all three of us and the entire Legislature could agree that the process we used to pass this bill was not a good one,” Van De Wege said.

“We have lots of excuses of why we did it so quickly, but it was not a good process.”

Last year, a group of regional news organizations, including Sound Publishing — which owns the Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum — sued the Legislature after it denied requests for documentation of any sexual assault and harassment complaints filed against all 147 lawmakers.

In response, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled that state representatives and senators are subject to the same public disclosure requirements that cover state agencies and local governments.

The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal.

Meanwhile, the Democrat and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate agreed that the Jan. 19 court ruling was “crazy,” Tharinger said.

“To take 98 representatives and the 49 senators and make them individual state agencies would be a budget buster,” said Tharinger.

“You would all have to have staff that would deal with public records. It would just really disrupt the whole process.”

With bipartisan support, lawmakers “moved very quickly” and passed the bill with no hearings Feb. 23, Tharinger said.

“That was wrong in the sense that we should have had committee meetings and more public process,” Tharinger said.

Chapman and Tharinger, both of whom are former Clallam County commissioners, were among 41 lawmakers who signed a letter urging Inslee to veto the bill they had voted for.

Chapman said he had received more emails on the public records bill than any other legislation, and it came from all sides of the political spectrum.

“This pretty much pissed off everybody all in one fell swoop,” Chapman said.

“And because it was a bipartisan bill, both parties were fully culpable.”

Despite a flawed public process, all three District 24 lawmakers said the legislation had merit.

Lawmakers often hear from those who are dealing with domestic violence, mental health problems and abuse, Tharinger said.

“Quite frankly, in a 24-hour news cycle, that’s what the media wants,” Tharinger said.

”They want that information to create stories. We don’t think that’s right.”

Lawmakers have an obligation to protect the privacy of their constituents, Tharinger said.

“That should be our decision, not somebody that’s trying to feed a 24-hour news cycle,” Tharinger said.

Chapman challenged naysayers to read all 25 pages of the bill, which opens with a quote from John Adams.

“What in that 25-page document do you find so egregious?” Chapman said.

“Because I think that the records that you want would be fully transparent and complete under that (bill), except where it conflicts with the state constitution and where it conflicts with our founding fathers.

“For those legislators who read through it, they’re like “Yeah, this is a great piece of legislation,”Chapman added.

Chapman predicted that a similar bill would be introduced in 2019.

“We should have done some things differently,” Tharinger said in retrospect.

“But right now, there’s less transparency than if it would have passed.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].

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