By Pat Grubb, publisher and managing editor of The Northern Light
“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”
Thus begins the preamble to Washington state’s Public Records Act. The act was approved by voters in a 1972 initiative and ensures that anything that is recorded in writing and possessed by the government is open to the public unless a specific law prohibits it. Budgets, emails, letters, reports, even Post-It notes, are included in the law’s mandate. At the time of the bill’s adoption, the law only allowed 10 exemptions from disclosure. Currently, there are well over 500 exemptions in the Revised Code of Washington. In a secretive and hasty bit of legislative maneuvering, state legislators have created the biggest exemption of all. They’ve exempted themselves.
This cynical effort to avoid public scrutiny comes after Thurston County Superior Court judge Chris Lanese ruled in January that the legislature is indeed subject to public disclosure laws in a case brought by the Associated Press and other media outlets who had been denied access to documentation of sexual assault and harassment complaints filed against lawmakers. Calling it an “emergency,” the leadership privately put together a bill and rushed it through the Senate and the House without benefit of public hearings or consultations on Friday – and made it retroactive to the beginning of statehood.
There are very few heroes in this story – out of 145 legislators, only 21 voted against the measure. Both parties voted for this travesty – both parties deserve condemnation. Our three District 42 legislators; senator Doug Ericksen and representatives Vincent Buys and Luanne Van Werven voted in favor. Ironically, Van Werven is a member of Washington state’s Sunshine Committee, a group charged with reviewing all exemptions to the disclosure act. Mid-afternoon Tuesday, the committee voted 7-0 to ask Governor Jay Inslee to veto the law. Only one of the legislators on the committee, representative Larry Springer, showed up. He expressed opposition to the motion but left before the vote.
The legislators have tried to paint a happy face on this law – don’t believe them. Among other things, the bill will allow a wide range of communications to be confidential such as those between lawmakers, lawmakers and staff, and lawmakers and constituents. Even the appeals process will be controlled by the legislature.
Not surprisingly, the passage of this law has spurred an immediate and overwhelmingly negative reaction. A number of newspapers including The Bellingham Herald and The Seattle Times have published front page editorials against it. Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform, wrote that “Lawmakers have awoken a sleeping giant,” and displayed a long list of editorials, articles and posts that have been published by newspapers, local and national, and commentators such as former Attorney General Rob McKenna and the League of Women Voters of Washington.
Most editorials have called on citizens to contact Inslee to urge him to veto the law. This would force the Senate and House to vote again, this time under the glare of public view. If you believe your public servants shouldn’t decide what is good for you to know and what is not good for you to know, let your voice be heard.
To contact the governor to ask him to veto the bill, go to bit.ly/2F7AWDN. To express your opposition to the bill with District 42 legislators, email Doug.Ericksen@leg.wa.gov, Luanne.VanWerven@leg.wa.gov, and Vincent.Buys@leg.wa.gov. For a list of every legislator’s email address, go to bit.ly/1BMyo1z.