Editorial roundup: Regional news outlets insist Inslee must veto records runaround

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a roundup of editorials from regional news outlets urging Gov. Jay Inslee to veto Senate Bill 6617, which the state Legislature passed Feb. 23. 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.

Inslee must veto records runaround

Well, that was quick.

And that speed and the break with usual legislative practice should tell you that something is not right and that the state’s lawmakers know it.

In about 48 hours — less time than it took the Legislature last year to consider and adopt a budget with a state government shutdown looming — state lawmakers introduced, considered and adopted a bill that largely exempts them from the state Public Records Act.

We are repeating our earlier appeal to Gov. Jay Inslee that he veto Senate Bill 6617 and force both the Senate and House to reconsider a measure that was rushed through an undemocratic process and allows lawmakers full and unchecked discretion in deciding what documents they will release to the public.

Further, lawmakers should take note that any vote by individual lawmakers to override a veto by the governor will disqualify them for consideration of an endorsement by The Herald Editorial Board in future elections. All 98 House of Representative seats are up for election this year, as are 24 of the 49 Senate seats.

We hope that voters would also seriously reconsider their support for any lawmaker who has supported this legislation.

Again, lawmakers are being asked to follow a law that is already the expectation for almost all other public officials, state agencies and all forms of local government. These are public records because they belong to the public that gives government its agency.

Created by citizen initiative in 1972, the Public Records Act requires elected officials, state agencies and local governments to comply with specific requests for public records and documents. For decades, however, one of the major exceptions have been state legislators, who have successfully exempted themselves from abiding by the act’s provisions.

What prompted lawmakers’ hurried response this session was their loss last month in Thurston County Superior Court. Judge Chris Lanese ruled in favor of a coalition of media members, including The Herald’s Sound Publishing, which had filed suit after the denial of a recent request that sought emails, work calendars and any staff complaints involving alleged sexual harassment by lawmakers from each of the 147 legislators.

Lanese’s decision ruled that the unambiguous language of the Public Records Act applies directly to the offices of state senators and representatives.

Rather than abide by the court ruling, the Legislature adopted a bill that fails in its provisions and in the manner in which it was adopted.

Other than a one-hour work session on Thursday, there were no public hearings on SB 6617.

There were no amendments, save for a change by one of its prime sponsors to correct a typo.

And there was no debate.

Of the 14 House members who voted against the bill, none spoke in opposition, because, as The Spokesman-Review reported Friday, opponents were told not to speak against it.

“This is the kind of bill where I would not be surprised that threats were made,” Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, told The Seattle Times.

The legislation does make provision for release of some documents, specifically emails between lawmakers and lobbyists, some lawmaker calendar entries and the final dispositions of legislative investigations. Otherwise, release of documents is left to each lawmaker’s discretion, including emails among legislators.

Among its provisions:

Using privacy concerns disingenuously as a cover, the legislation shields emails between lawmakers and “constituents,” allowing a broad definition that extends beyond ordinary citizens to include those corporate, union and other special interests that do not register as lobbyists. Any legitimate privacy concerns for the safety of private individuals can be fully addressed through provisions in the Public Records Act, which allows for redaction of identifying information.

Other than final dispositions outlining a disciplinary decision, it would block the release of documents related to complaints, such as those regarding sexual harassment involving lawmakers, staff or lobbyists.

An appeal of a decision to deny a particular record is decided by legislative offices in the House or Senate, with no avenue to appeal to the courts.

The legislation becomes law upon the governor’s signature or the Legislature’s override of his veto and it is retroactive, which should be interpreted as an attempt to nullify Judge Lanese’s decision.

Of the region’s seven senators and 14 representatives, only two — 44th District Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, and 39th District Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley — voted against the bill. (10th District Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, was recorded as excused and did not vote on the measure.)

Those voting to adopt SB 6617 include (District 1) Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby; Rep. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell; Rep. Shelley Kloba, D-Kirkland; (District 10) Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor; Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island; (District 21) Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood; Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds; Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo; (District 32) Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline; Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline; Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Seattle; (District 38) Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip; Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett; Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett; (District 39) Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish; Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan (District 44) Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens; and Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek.

Some lawmakers will object to our withholding of future endorsements as being akin to single-issue voting.

This is not a solitary issue. The Public Records Act, which holds government and officials answerable to the people, is a fundamental requirement of representative democracy.

Respect for and adherence to the Public Records Act affects all other issues that the Legislature considers. The act ensures that the public can be fully informed of the workings of government and how it arrives at its decisions.

Government cannot operate in the interests of the public without the act in full force.

The (Everett) Herald Editorial Board

Gov. Inslee must stand up for the people

Washington state lawmakers have committed an egregious breach of the public trust. It now falls to Gov. Jay Inslee to correct the wrong born from their hubris.

The governor must veto Senate Bill 6617, a brazen attempt by lawmakers to exempt themselves from the state’s Public Records Act. These elected officials are evading the ruling of a judge and contradicting Attorney General Bob Ferguson, both of whom said legislators are subject to the law.

SB 6617 attempts to shut down a lawsuit brought by 10 news-media organizations, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times. The bill tries to permanently ban access to lawmakers’ past emails, text messages and calendars, as well as past disciplinary proceedings and complaints about lawmakers’ conduct.

Going forward, the bill allows lawmakers to conceal more records than almost every other government official in the state, while eliminating the option to appeal to a judge to decide if the Legislature has wrongly withheld documents.

Now, in a perverse twisting of reality, these same state lawmakers are proudly telling constituents they just made state government more transparent, not less. This shockingly dishonest spin ignores the court ruling that found lawmakers have been illegally withholding documents for years, a clear violation of the citizens’ right to know what their elected officials are doing.

It is shameful that lawmakers swiftly passed this legislation rolling back government accountability measures that voters approved in 1972.

Their approach is anathema to Gov. Inslee’s long-standing sensibility and commitment to open government. He has been one of the most transparent executives in recent memory, eschewing the practice of invoking executive privilege to withhold certain records. He has rightfully vetoed legislation he thought would rupture the state’s open-government laws. He has chided lawmakers for their secrecy and told them they can function effectively while following the same transparency standards as his office and other government agencies.

Now is the time for Inslee to show he is not just talk. He must take a stand and veto SB 6617.

Inslee must act as the voice of the people, especially after the Legislature purposefully squelched opportunities for public comment by rushing through this bill. The disingenuous attachment of an emergency clause to the measure eliminates voters’ ability to launch a referendum effort of their own.

The Seattle Times

Veto needed for shameful public records bill

Publishing an editorial on the front page of The News Tribune is an unusual step we’re taking at an unusual historic moment — a distressing time when one branch of state government is trying to rewrite the ground rules of openness and accountability.

We can’t stand by while the Washington Legislature takes a jackhammer to the bedrock values enshrined in our state’s Public Records Act (PRA).

We urge Gov. Jay Inslee to respond with his own unusual action. He must veto Senate Bill 6617, send it back to legislators and give them a chance to come to their senses.

If the governor doesn’t act, or if he does and legislators override his veto, we trust voters will keep this infamy in mind during the 2018 elections and beyond.

On Friday, the Senate and House both passed a bill that circumvents a January court decision ordering them to comply with the PRA. Legislators have flouted the law for years, and a coalition of news media organizations led by the Associated Press filed suit last year.

In approving SB6617, legislators officially gifted themselves secrecy privileges that state agencies, city councils, and other local governments don’t enjoy. To make matter worse, concealing records from the public could no longer be challenged in court.

The plan was hatched in the dark by leaders of both parties, then rushed through the Capitol last week with little time for lawmakers or their constituents to digest it. Established public process went by the wayside; there were no committee meetings, public hearings, amendments or floor debate.

Many who voted for the bill are trying to cast it as a victory for transparency. Don’t believe them. That’s like calling blowing one’s nose a victory over the flu.

Yes, the bill would open some calendar items, disciplinary findings and lobbyist communications to public view. But it also allows legislators to cherry-pick from an array of exemptions under the banner of privacy rights and effective governance.

We understand that preserving and releasing records creates additional work for legislators. But convenience wasn’t among the principles held dear by Washington voters when they adopted the PRA in 1972; their intent was made manifest in the law’s preamble: “The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

Some Democrats are trying to put a smiley face on this sad bill; by passing it, they say in their talking points, they took a “first step into the sunshine.” But that omits the fact that a judge, the state attorney general and many citizens have told them one step isn’t good enough; they need to walk fully in the sunlight.

Why not return to Olympia next year with a bill that addresses their privacy and records-management concerns, but under the illumination of a full public process? Or why not let their appeal play out in court? What’s the rush?

If any bright side can be found in Friday’s floor action, it’s that a big chunk of the opposition — eight of the 14 “no” votes in the House, and three of the eight nays in the Senate — was made up of Pierce and South King county legislators.

Rep. Melanie Stambaugh summed up the resistance well. The Puyallup Republican issued a statement showing wisdom from the youngest member of the Legislature (and the candor of an elected official who’s not running for reelection).

“I am deeply disappointed in the Legislature’s blatant disregard for transparency in the legislative process,” Stambaugh wrote. “This is a time where the legislature should come together to make government more transparent, not less. The very process utilized to craft and pass this bill violates the public trust.”

That so many members of the local delegation voted against the bill should be a credit to them come election time. Conversely, demerits should be awarded to the dozen or more South Sound lawmakers who endorsed the fiction that they’re above the law.

Some of the bill’s supporters tell us they will exceed its requirements and release more records than they have to. We’ll be sure to test that pledge, in the unfortunate event this stinker becomes law.

Inslee would do well to remember one of his vetoes from last year; he rejected a tax break for manufacturers partly because he didn’t like the way it was jammed through late in the session.

Such a significant change, he said, “should be considered in a thoughtful, transparent process that incorporates public input.”

The governor could echo those words in his veto message for SB6617. He should do all he can to squelch this insidious plan firmly and quickly.

The (Tacoma) News Tribune

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