Friday, August 14, 2020
Aug. 14, 2020

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Legislators look forward to better public records bill

Members of Clark County's delegation support Inslee's veto, welcome time for more transparent process

By , Columbian political reporter

After widespread outcry this week, local lawmakers had a change of heart on a bill they and other legislators quickly rushed through both chambers that would’ve shielded them from most of the requirements of the state’s public records law.

Though many lawmakers still support the bill, they conceded the process was too rushed and lacked public input. Gov. Jay Inslee agreed and on Thursday he vetoed the bill, something many lawmakers encouraged him to do after their change of heart.

“I still believe that the policy we passed was stronger than it had been in the past,” said state Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver. “That got overlooked. The attention to the process really took over.”

That attention began as soon as the bill passed as critics spoke out and several newspapers across the state — including The Columbian — ran rare front-page editorials calling for Inslee to veto the bill.

Lawmakers relented on Thursday as 16 Senate Democrats and 41 House Democrats sent identical letters to the governor asking Inslee to veto the bill, which he did.

The Legislature had overwhelmingly passed SB 6617 earlier in the week in response to a Thurston County Superior Court judge’s ruling in January. That ruling resulted from a lawsuit brought last year by a coalition of media organizations seeking release of lawmakers’ calendars, correspondence and documents that other government entities typically must disclose under the state’s public records law.

Legislators argued that the bill was necessary because providing some of those records would have been unworkable and expensive. They also argued that the bill would increase transparency by opening up some correspondence and calendars that had previously been withheld.

The bill was introduced and passed in just two days after lawmakers sidestepped the normal legislative process.

In their letters to Inslee, Democrats stated they “made a mistake by failing to go through a full public hearing process on this very important legislation. The hurried process has overshadowed the positive reforms in the bill.” The letter also said that they will convene a task force to look into the issue and make recommendations to the 2019 Legislature regarding the release of legislative records.

According to an Associated Press report, the media coalition behind the lawsuit agreed to request a stay of the judge’s ruling while the case is appealed.

Stonier and Sharon Wylie, both Vancouver Democrats, signed the letter after previously voting for the bill. State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, also signed. Wylie had earlier expressed misgivings about voting for the bill and now said in a text she was “delighted” that it had been vetoed.

Stonier said that she voted for the bill because it would’ve subjected the Legislature to more disclosure, particularly meetings with lobbyists. But she said she wishes the process to pass it had been more traditional. After it caught the attention of the public, she said she signed on to the letter.

Another letter signed by the entire House Republican Caucus faulted the Democratic leadership of the Legislature for rushing the bill through each chamber.

“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,” the letter states. “However, all 48 of our members wished they could have voted for a better bill.”

The letter states that a better bill was the Republican-sponsored HB 2255, which didn’t make it out of committee. Legislators complained that the judge’s ruling would have meant each individual legislative office would have to function as a state agency for records requests, which they described as unfeasible. HB 2255 would have instead made state legislative records public and assigned the secretary of the Senate and the chief clerk of the House to handle public records requests.

“My hope is the Legislature can now move ahead and truly address the public process and transparency needed,” said state Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, who was the only member of Clark County’s legislative delegation to vote against the bill.

State Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, said in a text that the “Legislature has ALWAYS been exempt from” the public records law and that the bill would make some calendars and correspondence public. She said that the Legislature had to overturn a “colossally silly court decision” that deemed individual legislators to be “agencies.”

However, she noted that she was not happy with the fast track of the bill, which she said was controlled by the majority party.

“I would have preferred to vote on a better bill and one that was more transparent to the public,” she said. “With the Governor’s veto, it looks like we will get that chance.”

The Senate Republicans did not issue a letter nor a statement.

“Back to the drawing board,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, in a text. When asked if she thought the governor’s veto was positive, she responded with “sure.”

“I have confidence there will be a good result,” said state Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver.