Urge Gov. Inslee to veto public records end-run

Editor’s Note: The correct phone number for the governor’s office is 360-902-4111.

It shouldn’t be up to the state Legislature to make its own rules about what it will or will not release to the public.

Legislation passed last week — ESB 6617 — not only gives the Legislature oversight of itself but also was adopted in a hurry, with no public hearing or floor debate.

Lawmakers acted Friday only 48 hours after releasing the proposal, which was designed to circumvent a recent court ruling that found state lawmakers fully subject to state public disclosure laws.

The measure would retroactively remove the legislative branch from the state’s voter-approved Public Records Act so lawmakers could shield records sought by a coalition of media groups, led by The Associated Press and including Sound Publishing, Inc. — which owns the Peninsula Daily News — and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.

It now is before Gov. Jay Inslee, who has until the end of Thursday to sign the bill, allow it to become law without his signature, or veto all or part of it.

The Peninsula Daily News urges him to veto it. That would mean the state Legislature would have to consider it again — with a full and open debate and with the public input it avoided last week.

The issue has prompted response from all over the state, from journalists and other members of the public.

Eleven of the state’s newspapers have published front page editorials urging Inslee to veto the bill.

Kate Riley, editorial page editor of The Seattle Times — which also joined the AP lawsuit — wrote it was the first time in 110 years the newspaper had printed an editorial on its front page.

Also publishing Page A1 editorials Tuesday were the The Spokesman-Review, The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald, The Daily Herald, The Columbian, the Yakima Herald-Republic, the Tri-City Herald, the Skagit Valley Herald and the Wenatchee World.

A raft of other newspapers have published the same opinion on their commentary pages.

All are imploring Inslee to reject the bill, even though it passed with veto-proof majorities Friday — 41-7 in the Senate and 83-14 in the House — to send a message about government transparency.

A sample of opinion from throughout the state can be read today in the Peninsula Daily News on its Commentary Page on A9.

KOMO News reported Tuesday morning that the governor’s office had received 1,600 emails and 1,100 calls from people opposed to the bill, with only seven calls in favor of it.

A phone number for the governor’s office, 360-902-4111, was answered Tuesday afternoon with a recording saying the office was experiencing a “heavy call volume” and adding that callers can send the governor a message from his website at https://tinyurl.com/PDN-contactgov.

The fast-tracked legislation followed a Jan. 19 ruling from Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese who said that the Legislature is subject to state public disclosure laws.

Last year, regional news organizations sued the Legislature after it denied Associated Press requests for documentation of any sexual assault and harassment complaints filed against the 147 lawmakers.

The decision is being appealed and might go before the state Supreme Court.

But the Legislature decided not to wait for the court process.

District 24 legislators — who represent constituents in Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Gray’s Harbor County — have argued that the legislation makes the Legislature more transparent to the public than it has been.

Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, has said that he voted for the measure because it gave him the authority to release information. Otherwise, he said, he was hamstrung by the pending court case. He vowed to release everything requested except for personal text messages.

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege said that the Superior Court ruling would be an onerous imposition on lawmakers, treating “individual members as separate government agencies.”

He and Rep. Steve Tharinger also said the measure “is the largest expansion of legislative records being opened to the public in over two decades.”

Among the information lawmakers are allowed to withhold under the legislation is communication from constituents. They must disclose information from paid lobbyists.

Sandy Stokes with the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association described that 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.”

Van De Wege and Tharinger called the measure an initial step that could be changed later if it isn’t sufficient.

We can see now that it is not only insufficient, but an appalling attempt to circumvent the public.

If you agree, call or write the governor. He has said the legislation is a bad idea. Urge him to stand up for that conviction.

________

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

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