Legislators hear feedback on public records bill

Edmonds representatives join others in admitting they ‘made a mistake’
By Brian Soergel | Mar 07, 2018
Gov. Jay Inslee

Edmonds Legislative representatives who last week voted to largely shield themselves from the Public Records Act reversed their decisions after a strong public outcry and a veto from Gov. Jay Inslee.

Legislators “made a mistake by failing to go through a full public hearing process on this very important legislation,” according to letters signed by 41 House Democrats and 16 Senate Democrats and delivered to Inslee late Thursday, March 1.

“After reading hundreds of emails from constituents, and after much reflection on this issue, I just signed on to a letter asking the governor to veto Senate Bill 6617,” Rep. Strom Peterson (D-Edmonds) said in a statement Friday, March 2.

“While I still believe that some of the policy in the bill was a good step forward, the process was so broken that we need to start over with a much more public and transparent process.

The bill would have made lawmakers’ calendars, all correspondence between lawmakers and lobbyists, and final decisions of investigations and disciplinary proceedings open to disclosure.

“This would have meant an unprecedented amount of legislative records would have been opened to the public,” Peterson said. “However, the deeply flawed and unacceptable process in which the bill was moved through the Legislature overshadowed any merit in it. I recognize my vote on the bill was also a vote for the process. And for that, I apologize.”

Peterson said the legislators now have a chance to begin again and allow for the appropriate public input and deliberation.

“Over the interim,” he said, “legislators will be convening a task force with open-government advocates, representatives of the news media, the governor and the attorney general to provide recommendations for public records policy for the Legislature. It is my hope that this collaborative process will result in improved transparency while still protecting constituent privacy.”

On Thursday, March 1, Inslee vetoed the bill after he received a request Thursday evening from a number of legislators to veto the bill after they reached an agreement with media organizations about a process for working together on the issue.

“The public’s right to government information is one we hold dearly in Washington,” Inslee said in a news release. “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 said he will convene a task force with representatives from his office, the Attorney General’s office, the news media, open government advocates, lawmakers and others to engage in a very public process and bring back recommendations to the Legislature next year.

Plaintiffs from a media lawsuit agreed to join defendants in seeking a stay of proceedings in the trial court during the appeal, and further agree they will not try to enforce the trial court’s order during the appeal.

(Last year, the Associated Press, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, the Seattle Times, Sound Publishing and other regional news organizations sued the Legislature after it denied their requests for documentation of any sexual assault and harassment complaints filed against all 147 lawmakers.)

Legislators whose representation includes Edmonds – in addition to Peterson they include Reps. Ruth Kagi, Cindy Ryu and Lillian Ortiz-Self, as well as Sens. Marko Liias and Maralyn Chase – all agreed the bill was hastily assembled. Still, there was some pushback.

“After reading and listening to hundreds of messages from my bosses back home, I have concluded that the Governor should veto the public records bill, and we should start the process over,” Liias said in a statement.

“Democracy is hard, but it’s worth the struggle. This gives us the chance to have a full conversation about the need to protect constituent privacy but also ensure better transparency. I hope the news media engages in a dialogue rather than pursuing more lawsuits.”

Rep. Lillian-Ortiz Self (D-Shoreline) said in a release that the House and Senate passed a bill that, for the first time in decades, would have made many legislative communications available to the public and to the media.

“I felt the policy in the bill was a good first step toward more government transparency, which is why I voted in favor,” she said. “The way I saw it, more transparency was better than none at all.

But skipping the process to rush it through both chambers left a lot to be desired and made me, and many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle who also gave it a yes vote, very uncomfortable.

“The responses many of us got from our constituents made us realize that passing that bill without it going through the regular legislative process was a mistake. You were right to be outraged because citizens should be able to weigh in on every piece of legislation we consider at the state Capitol.”

The letter sent to Inslee from House Republicans was more contentious.

“Democrats control the House, Senate, and Governor’s mansion,” the letter read. “They control the hearings and notice of hearings process. The Democrats scheduled a hasty joint work session and vote in both chambers on SB 6617. We understand that you and the Democrat (sic) leaders have orchestrated a veto of SB 6617. That is a good start.

“While SB 6617 was the only solution allowed by the Democrats, many of our members thought this was at least a step in the right direction. However, all 48 of our members wished they could have voted for a better bill. The people demand disclosure. Our constituents demand privacy of victims and witnesses. We agree and continue to support transparency.”

A rushed bill

The bill was introduced Feb. 21 and rushed to a floor vote two days later. It passed the Senate 41-7 with no debate and, shortly after, was approved in the House by 83-14.

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

But the Legislature has long maintained that it is an independent branch of government and not an “agency” – meaning it has made up its own rules on what to disclose.

Lawyers for the Legislature promptly appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, then lawmakers set to work rewriting the public records law.

“I want to thank the legislators who have reconsidered this bill and asked me for this veto tonight,” said Inslee in the news release. “Since this bill passed, my office and lawmakers have heard an unprecedented level of response from the public.

“I believe the Legislature’s overwhelming vote on the bill was a good faith attempt to increase disclosure and transparency. Though I expressed concerns about the outline of the bill, I did tell legislators I 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.”

 

 

 

 

 

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