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Dec. 9, 2019

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In Our View: Lawmakers Aren’t Special

Legislators deserve no wiggle room in adhering to state’s Public Records Act

The Columbian
Published: October 28, 2018, 6:03am

Message for legislators in Olympia: You aren’t that special.

Nobody likes to hear that, but when it comes to Washington’s Public Records Act, lawmakers apparently need a frequent and unwavering reminder. Because as the Public Records Task Force continues its work, legislators continue their attempts to sidestep the law. “We have had a lot of discussion about what the law is,” state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said at a recent meeting of the task force. “And I think what we’re here for is a discussion about: What do we think the law should be?”

No, that is not the discussion. The law passed by voters in 1972 is clear, and the discussion must be about how legislators can adhere to it. After all, other elected officials throughout Washington — ranging from school board members to the state attorney general — manage to do so. Such adherence is not difficult, yet lawmakers continue to suggest that they are special and should not be beholden to the public that hires and pays them.

At issue is public access to items such as a legislator’s work-related emails, phone records and schedules. If an elected representative is meeting with lobbyists for environmental groups while considering a bill about oil trains, the public has a right to know.

That is the guideline spelled out in the law, and a Thurston County judge confirmed that in a January ruling on a lawsuit brought by The Associated Press and other media outlets. Rather than agree to follow the law, legislators attempted to change it and passed a bill to exempt themselves from several provisions. The public took note, and more than 20,000 citizens contacted Gov. Jay Inslee, urging him to veto the bill, which he did.

Notably, Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, was the only Southwest Washington legislator to vote against the bill.

The agreement that led to Inslee’s veto created a task force to examine the issue. But rather than approach the task force with a hint of humility and a desire to serve the people, lawmakers on the committee are demonstrating the same hubris the public found so appalling in the first place. “We need to negotiate, and everyone has to be willing to give a little,” state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said at one meeting. “It’s not Christmas; everyone has to come to an agreement and see if we can find something.”

No, lawmakers need to recognize that they have violated a law that is essential to open government, and they need to demonstrate contrition. There should be no wiggle room in serving the public. If an employee at a private company refused to let the boss know who they were meeting with during work hours, we’re guessing the boss would have a word with them; the same must hold true for lawmakers and the taxpayers who provide their salary.

Throughout this kerfuffle, legislators have claimed they are protecting members of the public who wish to remain anonymous or share personal problems. But the Public Records Act already contains more than 500 exemptions, including protection for whistleblowers, that can be adapted to the needs of lawmakers. And officials at the city and county levels manage to follow the act without claiming special privileges that keep the public in the dark.

In the 1990s, lawmakers amended the Public Records Act to add: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.” Lawmakers should heed those words, rather than acting as though they are particularly special.