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Monday, June 5, 2023
June 5, 2023

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In Our View: Lawmakers should embrace transparency

The Columbian

Some state lawmakers, apparently, could use a class in Civics 101.

There, they can be reminded that Washington’s Public Records Act says: “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. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

The premise is simple: Effective and responsive government depends upon transparency. Lawmakers are beholden to the public, bereft of special dispensation that allows them to keep secrets from those who pay the bills.

That is the gist of the Public Records Act, which was passed with 72 percent of the vote in 1972. Yet while that initiative remains inviolate today, lawmakers continue to seek ways to weasel into the dark corners of government secrecy.

Recently, reports The Seattle Times, legislators have sought to find a meaning that doesn’t exist in state law. The Washington Coalition for Open Government has found that some lawmakers and their staff — under advice from lawyers for the Democratic House and Senate caucuses — are declining requests for public records while citing “legislative privilege.”

As the Times writes editorially: “Therein lies the gaslighting. Lawmakers didn’t formally announce this radical reinterpretation of the state Constitution. They just started invoking it as if it had been there all along. They want to trick Washingtonians into believing that this is nothing unusual.”

It is, in fact, unusual. The Public Records Act offers no exception for “legislative privilege,” and makes no provision for withholding legally requested public records.

In fact, lawmakers have previously been rebuked for attempts to undermine or ignore the Public Records Act.

In 2018, they passed a law exempting the Legislature from the act. After public outcry resulted in more than 20,000 phone calls and emails to the governor’s office — in addition to front-page editorials in numerous Washington newspapers, including The Columbian — Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the bill.

Then, in 2019, the state Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers are subject to the Public Records Act. Opining for the majority in a 7-2 decision, Justice Susan Owens wrote that “individual legislators’ offices are ‘agencies’ subject to the PRA’s general public records disclosure mandate. Legislative history confirms rather than contradicts our conclusion.”

Yet some lawmakers continue to seek obfuscation where clarity exists. During a media briefing prior to the start of this year’s legislative session, House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said she has never invoked the privilege but defended the right of individual lawmakers to do so.

That is an affront to the public and it undermines the foundation of good governance. Lawmakers who are hired by the people have no right — either under the law or the boundaries of common sense — to keep their work schedules, work-related emails or public records secret from their employers. Nor do they have a right to invent “legislative privilege” as an excuse for withholding those records.

A former editor of The Columbian used to have some standing advice for elected officials: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” Yet some lawmakers can’t help themselves.

Rather than retreating to the shadows of secrecy, they should follow state law and embrace transparency that best serves their constituents. And a civics lesson or two probably wouldn’t hurt.