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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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Member of Washington’s ‘Sunshine Committee’ quits, cites lawmaker inaction

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OLYMPIA — A panel scrutinizing carve-outs to Washington’s government transparency laws saw one of its members resign Tuesday, frustrated that the Legislature disregards recommendations on making public records more accessible.

Kathy George, a public-records lawyer and member of the 13-person Sunshine Committee, stepped down during the middle of Tuesday morning’s meeting.

“I’m leaving. I’m resigning,” George told other members before leaving the room where the meeting was held. “I’ve been talking about resigning for some time now. And I think this is a good time for that.”

Her departure reflected frustration among open-records advocates about the Legislature’s lack of action on transparency issues, and specifically those modest changes to carve-outs proposed by the Sunshine Committee.

The panel’s members on Tuesday debated whether they should even bother continuing their work, though they rejected a motion to recommend dissolving the group.

The resignation and debate took place as lawmakers have come under fire in recent months for attempts to shield some of their own records from public scrutiny.

George, a former journalist who also sits on the board of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, had served on the Sunshine Committee for five years.

The committee studies exemptions to the state’s Public Records Act. While state law makes most government records public, there are exemptions that withhold some government information, for privacy or other reasons.

The committee’s job is also to recommend which of those exceptions to take away or change. But George said that in recent years, lawmakers haven’t passed legislation to turn those ideas from the committee into law.

“The main reason why I’m terminating my membership is because I’m just spinning my wheels,” George said in an interview. “We can’t get a bill passed. We couldn’t even get a bill introduced. And it just doesn’t seem like the Legislature is likely to remove the exemptions.”

George also has represented The Seattle Times in public records lawsuits.

Committee Chair Linda Krese, a former Snohomish County Superior Court judge, started a discussion at Tuesday’s meeting — before George resigned — about why lawmakers weren’t considering the committee’s proposals.

When the committee was created in 2007, she said, there were about 300 exemptions to the public records law, which Washington voters had approved as a ballot initiative in 1972.

There are now at least 600 exemptions, Krese said.

“And frankly, if you look at the entire history of the committee, there’s been very little that has ever been taken up” by lawmakers, Krese said.

“We haven’t been really encouraged by the Legislature,” said committee member Lynn Kessler, a Democrat who served in the state House from 1993 to 2011, during the meeting. “They seem to be even going more toward being exempted themselves. So I’m not sure they really believe in open government, at least not for themselves.”

In early January, reporting by McClatchy revealed that some lawmakers were citing “legislative privilege” to withhold certain records, arguing they were entitled to keep them hidden from public view under the state constitution.

State lawmakers had long claimed they were exempt from public disclosure laws. A coalition of news outlets sued to get access to legislative records, such as emails, in 2017. Two years later, the Washington state Supreme Court ruled that legislators and their offices were subject to the state public records law.

Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, the only one of four legislators on the committee who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said he thought it wasn’t “professional” or “fair” to say the Legislature wasn’t transparent.

Kessler said in an interview that the members of the committee work hard, and on a volunteer basis, to study the exemptions to the law and draw up recommended changes. She said while she feels the Legislature doesn’t take open government issues seriously, the committee could have been more engaged in the legislative process, and didn’t want to lay all of the responsibility at the Legislature’s feet.

Kessler sponsored the state law creating the Sunshine Committee in 2007 after a failed attempt to create more oversight over executive sessions, when government bodies can discuss some specific topics out of the public eye.

She had initially introduced a bill to allow judges to review the minutes of executive sessions to make sure the topics discussed were within the bounds of the law. But it was unpopular with fellow lawmakers.

“You would have thought I proposed hanging them by their thumbs until they die,” Kessler said.

So instead she proposed a bill to take a closer look at other exemptions to the public records and meetings laws more broadly — and the Sunshine Committee was born.

George said during Tuesday’s meeting that she thought it was time to recommend disbanding the committee — or give it actual authority. But she noted that would require approval from the Legislature.

She moved the committee recommend the Legislature repeal the statute that created it, but most committee members voted against it.

“I think we should have further discussion,” Krese said.

The committee still exists for now, but members will reconsider whether it should continue at their next meeting, scheduled for May.

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