Washington’s public officials — like officials everywhere in the U.S. — have an uneasy relationship with open-records laws. Even those who philosophically believe in governing in the daylight of public scrutiny are likely to believe their time is sometimes wasted by intrusive demands for years of detailed information.
As we observed a year ago, the Washington Legislature has an especially split personality when it comes to government openness. Although they have carved out too many exceptions over the years, legislators have largely honored the public’s amply expressed interest in being able to delve into the behind-the-scenes details of agency operations, county commissions and city halls.
When it comes to its own wheeling and dealing, however, the Legislature has fought long and hard to keep things under wraps. In January 2018, a coalition of news media won a Thurston Superior Court case that said legislators are covered by laws that require most government records and meetings to be accessible to the public. The Legislature responded by swiftly and overwhelmingly passing an undebated bipartisan law largely reversing that court decision. An appeal of the Superior Court ruling — filed both by news media and the Legislature — is still being considered by the state Supreme Court.
Speak with many legislators and they will say they have complicated verbal and written communications with constituents, the disclosure of which would seriously impede their ability to make nuanced decisions and compromises in the public interest. In contrast, media organizations and public-interest groups argue that generations of backroom deal-making has often favored large corporations at the expense of ordinary citizens and unfairly shielded lawmakers from oversight.
This struggle continues in the current legislative session. According to a report by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association’s Capital Bureau, a proposed bill would exempt the legislature from disclosing a variety of documents, including records dealing with harassment, sexual assault or misconduct allegations, whistleblower protections, and constituent communications.
Leaders of the state’s news media testified against the proposal.
David Zeeck, recently retired publisher of the Tacoma News Tribune, said of proposed law, “it appears that the the Legislature is trying to legislate itself out of a problem in the courts.”
Laurie Williams, editor of the Tri City Herald, said, “This change that you’re proposing sends the wrong message, I think, in an era that is rife with conspiracy theories, paranoia, distrust and so-called fake news. This is not the time to give the public the sense that you have something to hide.”
That is indeed the impression given by these maneuvers by lawmakers. In history is any guide, citizens would be correct in arriving at that conclusion. The belief that secrecy breeds bad laws is what led state voters to pass the original public records law in 1972 by a 72 percent margin.
As stated in that initiative: “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. This chapter shall be liberally construed and its exemptions narrowly construed to promote this public policy and to assure that the public interest will be fully protected.”
Nothing in this statement exempts the Legislature. Its actions to the contrary undermine the democratic process. Like all the state, county and local agencies subject to openness requirements, legislators must find ways to do our business in front of us, not behind our backs.
The longer this legislative squirming goes on, the more likely it is that citizens will be asked to pass another initiative, this time narrowly constraining the Legislature’s ability to exempt itself from a good idea that they apply to other levels of government.
As Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen told legislators last week, “This not a battle you’re going to win in the court of public opinion.”
Is there room for compromise? Probably. No one doubts that there are abuses of public records laws by commercial entities, anti-government gadflies and others. But curbing abuses must not be used as an excuse to keep the public from staying apprised of our own business being conducted by our elected employees in Olympia.