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Governor torpedoes controversial public records bill

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Governor torpedoes controversial public records bill

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The State Legislature attempted to pass a bill that would allow for exemptions from the state’s Public Records Act

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On March 1, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed a controversial bill that would exempt the state Legislature from the Open Public Records Act, an initiative approved by state voters in 1972 to promote transparency in government.

The bill was passed just days prior by an overwhelming vote in both houses of the Legislature that was rushed through within 48 hours without public hearings, leaving the governor facing a firestorm of outrage from news media, lawyers and voters.

The bill is the culmination of events beginning last year when a coalition of news groups led by the Associated Press filed a lawsuit against the Legislature, claiming that lawmakers were intentionally misinterpreting language in the Public Records Act to avoid turning over documents such as texts and emails.

The lawsuit said that “hundreds of highly important records of the Washington Legislature and elected legislators are being withheld from the public, depriving the media and public of information to which it is entitled and which is essential to informed governance.”

On Jan. 19, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled that lawmakers are subject to the state’s public disclosure law. Lanese said that individual state representatives and senators are agencies as defined by state law, which means their calendars, emails and other such records are subject to disclosure upon request.

“And as a result, the court finds that the individual defendants have violated the Public Records Act by failing to respond to the public records request in this case as agencies under the Public Records Act,” Lanese said.

While in the process of appealing this court decision, the Legislature also rushed through the new bill.

Co-sponsored by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson and Republican Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, Senate Bill (SB) 6617 was introduced on Feb. 22, rushed through the Legislature, and passed with minimal debate on Feb. 23.  There were no committee meetings, public hearings, or floor debates.

While the bill would open up public access to certain types of documents, such as correspondence with lobbyists, it also would retroactively prohibit the public release of the documents sought after by the coalition of newsgroups who sued the Legislature last September.  This caused many, such as the Tacoma News Tribune’s Editorial Board, to criticize the bill as a duplicitous attempt to appear more transparent while actually being less so.

“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,” wrote the News Tribune’s Editorial Board. “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.”

According to a statement issued by Gov. Jay Inslee upon his vetoing of the bill, he received a request on the evening of March 1 from a number of legislators to veto the bill after they reached an agreement with media organizations after the heavy criticism.

“The public’s right to government information is one we hold dearly in Washington,” Inslee said in a statement emailed to reporters. “Transparency is a cornerstone of a democratic government, and I’m very proud of my administration’s record on public disclosure. I believe legislators will find they can fulfill their duties while being fully transparent, just like state and local governments all across Washington.”

Inslee further stated that he “would let the bill become law if they delivered it with enough votes to override a veto. However, that was before I saw the process which failed to meet public expectations for openness and delivered a bill that fell short.”

According to The News Tribune, the legislators pledged that they would not attempt to override the veto, and would create a task force to take a hard look at open-records reform in the 2019 Legislature. The committee will be made up of legislators, open-government advocates, state officials, and representatives from the news media.

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