Gov. Jay Inslee should veto the Legislature’s shameful attempt to make state government more secretive and less responsive to the public. He must send a strong reminder to lawmakers that they work for the people of Washington and that such a role does not place them outside the reach of the law.
This issue carries such weight that The Columbian, in concert with other newspapers throughout the state, is publishing this editorial in the lead position on our web page and on Page A1 of the print edition. We believe it is essential for the public to be aware of and to understand the lengths to which lawmakers have gone to keep that public in the dark.
On Friday, in action appalling in both intent and process, lawmakers overwhelmingly approved legislation to circumvent a recent court decision. That ruling, in Thurston County Superior Court, determined that information such as lawmakers’ emails and schedules are subject to public disclosure laws — the same laws that must be followed by city and county officials throughout the state.
Rather than recognize their duty as public servants, legislators cynically responded by creating and passing a bill to retroactively protect that information. Instead, the bill would make limited information available beginning July 1.
In other words, a duly elected judge ruled that the Legislature has been violating the law regarding public records, so the Legislature changed the law. The action is an indefensible power play that poorly serves the citizens of the state.
That summarizes the intent of the bill, but the process has been equally galling. The bill was introduced and passed in the span of two days, minus the typical slate of public hearings, discussion and debate. For an elected body that dithered for five years before meeting a court mandate regarding school funding, it is curious that the issue of public disclosure could be resolved in two days.
Among Southwest Washington lawmakers, Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, provided the only dissenting vote. “I believe the process of how this bill transpired could’ve been done differently with more public input,” Kraft wrote in a text message to The Columbian. “As a representative I have to be accountable to the citizens, so their feedback on important issues such as this especially is key.”
Other legislators defended their votes in favor of the bill, with Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, decrying in a Facebook post what she called “lies” and “hysteria” surrounding the issue. If that is, indeed, the case, lawmakers should be willing to hold robust public hearings and make a case for the bill, rather than ramming it through the legislative process.
Democracy, as we often state, can be messy. But one of its hallmarks must be openness on the part of elected representatives. Attempting to institutionalize opaqueness in the wake of a court ruling furthers mistrust among the public, suggests that secrecy is more important to lawmakers than service, and demonstrates an attitude that legislators can place themselves above the law. At a time when the foundation of our democracy is under frequent attack, it is essential that officials at all levels err on the side of disclosure rather than confidentiality.
Because of that, Gov. Inslee must veto the bill. While the legislation passed with veto-proof majorities, the governor would be wise to question whether lawmakers are confident in their action and fully understand the depth of public disapproval.
Sending the bill back to the Legislature would provide time to reconsider the proposal and would give the public ample time to weigh in — something that was woefully lacking last week.