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April 17, 2021

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In Our View: Err on Side of Openness

The Columbian
Published:

Imagine, for a moment, that you are an employer who hires workers, has expectations for how they will perform their jobs,and then pays them for their efforts. Now imagine that when you ask an employee for copies of their work emails or their schedule from the previous week, they decline. Imagine they say the information is “privileged” or is basically “none of your business.”

Absurd, right? Yet that is the approach often adopted by lawmakers when it comes to public records inquiries — as demonstrated when The Associated Press recently undertook a nationwide project requesting emails and schedules for legislative leaders and governors. In Washington, all four legislators declined to release the information, while Gov. Jay Inslee released some emails and his daily schedules.

At issue is the extent to which lawmakers are exempt from the state’s Public Disclosure Act. In other words, at issue is how beholden lawmakers should be to their employers — the taxpaying public. When in doubt, legislators should err on the side of openness; the public’s right to know the inner workings of government should be sacrosanct in a representative democracy. Not only is it essential to effective governance and an informed electorate, it also is important for building and reinforcing trust among the populace. In an age when frustration, distrust and even anger toward elected officials are a common theme among voters, ensuring open government is particularly important.

At times, there is some gray area. Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, noted that keeping emails exempt from records laws allows whistleblowers to contact lawmakers without fear of being exposed or facing retaliation. “We handle domestic violence, we have whistleblowers,” he said.

But rather than claiming blanket immunity out of concern for the occasional whistleblower, lawmakers should come up with a justification that holds water. According to the Associated Press: “The identity of people who are reporting ‘improper governmental action’ is exempt from public inspection under the state Public Records Act. There are also exemptions in place for domestic violence programs.”

Meanwhile, the Legislature should work quickly next year to remove exemptions that keep lawmakers’ schedules free from public scrutiny. This has been an ongoing issue for which secrecy has no defense. If journalists or members of the public want to know whether their local lawmaker missed a committee meeting or was not present for a vote, that information should be readily available online without necessitating a request. If an employee, for example, declined to tell their boss whether they were in the office the previous day, that likely would result in a quick trip to the HR department. It should be the same for lawmakers.

Not that Washington is alone in this regard. Nationally, the Associated Press request was denied in a majority of cases, even though most states require the release of information from city and county officials. As Rowland Thompson from the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington said: “Having the Legislature be exempt from the act creates a fair amount of confusion about why they would be different than a county councilmember from King County or Pierce County or Snohomish County or a county executive from one of those places. They really need to contemplate putting themselves into the act.”

Or, more directly, their employers should demand as much.

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