As the state Supreme Court considers a case involving legislative transparency, it is time for another reminder that lawmakers work for the public.
In June, justices heard arguments in a case in which the Legislature claims to be exempt from some provisions in the state’s Public Records Act. A recent decision involving emails stored on University of Washington computer systems might or might not be a harbinger of the pending decision, but it provides an opportunity to rekindle discussions regarding open government.
Let us start from the beginning. In 1972, voters passed Washington’s Public Records Act, which says in part that citizens “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. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments they have created.”
Legislators long have argued that they are exempt from portions of the law. This is a specious assertion, considering that city and county governments, school boards and other elected bodies are subject to the law. State lawmakers must realize that they are not so special as to warrant exemption.
This was reinforced in 2018, when a Thurston County judge largely ruled against lawmakers in a suit brought by the Associated Press and other media outlets. Legislators hastily pushed through a bill that would codify the special status, bypassing established procedures for writing and vetting the legislation. Public outcry ensued, led by editorials from numerous newspapers across the state, including The Columbian. Those editorials encouraged Gov. Jay Inslee to veto the bill; so did about 20,000 citizens who contacted the governor’s office. Inslee did, indeed, veto the legislation.
Lawmakers have continued to press the issue in court, leading to a pending decision from the Supreme Court.
Such stridency is an affront to the citizens of Washington and to the notion of open government. Imagine, for a moment, if employees at a private company tried to keep their work-related emails secret from the boss. Or if they refused to reveal who they met with during a work-related lunch. That is what lawmakers are doing in thumbing their noses at the public that is their employer.
A ruling issued this month by the state Supreme Court is tangentially related to the Legislature’s case. Justices ruled that emails sent by University of Washington professor Ron Wood and stored on university computer systems, related to workplace union organizing, are public records. But, as The Seattle Times editorially points out, the court also wrote that emails are not necessarily public records just because they are stored on public servers.
We hope that is not used as an opening to absolve lawmakers in their Quixotic quest for secrecy. The Public Records Act specifies that any information related to government conduct “retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics” is subject to disclosure. That clearly was the intent of the public in passing the law; we are the employers, and we demand transparency from our employees regarding how they conduct business.
As The Columbian wrote editorially in June: “If legislators win a partial or complete victory in the Supreme Court, it will be a Pyrrhic one. Government secrecy is not something to be lauded or celebrated, nor is it something to be embraced.” Regardless of the eventual decision, legislators should pass a law enhancing transparency and adhering to the reasonable demands of their employers.