Peninsula legislators comment on public disclosure, suicide bills

OLYMPIA — The North Olympic Peninsula’s three Democratic state legislators took differing views last week on a proposed Senate bill to exempt legislative records including drafts of bills, notes and some investigative information from public disclosure.

But, on another issue, as the second week of the 105-day state legislative session ended, 24th District Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles, Rep. Steve Tharinger of Port Angeles and state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Sequim were closer to agreement on establishment of a statewide youth suicide review team to review circumstances related to youths younger than age 24 whose deaths in 2018 were self-inflicted.

Legislation on the public records exemptions for legislative records was offered in SB 5784 (tinyurl.com/PDN-5784) on Thursday.

The Legislative Task Force on Public Records, which included Van De Wege, issued its final report barely a month ago, in December.

The group urged the Legislature to “strive for greater transparency” but did not offer specific proposals over which documents generated by legislators should be exempt from public disclosure.

Task force members said they could not reach consensus on the “need for protection of the legislative deliberative process” or agree on “adding narrowly crafted exemptions as needed.”

State Sen. Jamie Pederson of Seattle proposed SB 5784.

It would exempt from disclosure records including drafts of bills and amendments, staff memos and analyses, documents on negotiations among lawmakers, and any records on how a legislator intends to vote before a committee or a legislative chamber.

Last year, Pederson voted for a bill that said the Public Records Act did not apply to state legislators. That bill was vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee following statewide public opposition to the legislation.

The bill was in response to a lawsuit led by the Associated Press that included Sound Publishing — publisher of the Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum — that challenged lawmakers’ withholding of emails, schedules and reports of sexual harassment.

Chapman, Tharinger and Van De Wege voted for legislation exempting themselves from the Public Records Act.

Chapman told Peninsula Daily News at the time that he would uphold a veto, while Tharinger and Van De Wege would not comment until after Inslee made his decision.

A Thurston County judge’s ruling that the public records law applied to individual lawmakers has since been appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Van De Wege’s “main takeaway” from his work on the task force was that the media is waiting for the outcome of the lawsuit, he said Friday.

He said he was not familiar enough with Pederson’s bill to comment on it.

“The agreement with the veto was that the litigation would continue and there would be a stay on public records,” he said in an interview with Peninsula Daily News.

“That’s what you guys wanted, not what we wanted.

“That’s the world we are living in.

“The media has taken an approach to this issue that makes it very difficult for both sides to be heard.”

Chapman said he does not support any proposal that exempts legislators from the Public Records Act.

“I’m not looking for compromise legislation,” he said.

“I’m looking for legislation that fully complies with the Public Records Act.”

Such legislation would be “a simple fix” for the lawsuit, Chapman added.

Public records law already provides for protection of sensitive personal information, he said.

“Personally, I think legislative emails should be online and read as emails come in, and [the public] should see my responses all in real time.”

State Rep. Steve Tharinger, a 24th District lawmaker from Port Townsend, said he had not seen the bill, either.

“I thought there would be recommendations that came out of the task force and we would see a bill that was based on their recommendations,” Tharinger said Friday.

“There’s a need to expand our transparency of our public information.

“There’s some privacy issues around constituent correspondence around health issues or financial issues,” he added.

“There’s a lot of communication among legislators with lobbyists and other constituent groups that I think should be open to public records requests.

“I don’t have anything to hide within the legislative process.”

The Health Care and Wellness Committee that Tharinger sits on heard testimony last week on establishment of a youth suicide review team under HB 1240 (tinyurl.com/PDN-SuicideReview).

Each suicide in 2018 of any person younger than 24 years old would be reviewed to determine common factors and “compile statistics to establish a description of the lives of youth in Washington who have died by suicide and recommendations for targeting intervention programs to reach youth at risk for suicide earlier in life.”

The team would issue a report by June 1, 2021, on the feasibility of establishing locally based youth suicide review teams.

“It seems like it makes sense,” Tharinger said.

“The issue with a lot of these good ideas is, if you will, whether we can afford them.”

The study would cost about $250,000, Tharinger said.

Van De Wege said he was open to considering approval of the bill.

“Everyone is concerned about suicide,” he said.

Chapman said he supports the legislation.

In 2018, one of 31 Clallam County residents who died by suicide was 15-19, and two were 20-29, according to the county records.

Twelve were 60-69 years old, the largest single age group.

Of 10 suicides in Jefferson County in 2018, three people were 18, 19 and 20, and the next oldest was 51, according to county records.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].

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