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News / Northwest

Washington lawmakers advance bill to block some public employee info from view

By Claire Withycombe, The Seattle Times
Published: March 29, 2023, 8:13am

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday that would allow public employees who have experienced harassment, stalking, assault or abuse to block information such as names, job titles and work sites from public view.

The proposal faced pushback from open government advocates and news organizations. A Senate committee voted to move a version that would allow news media to continue to access the information that would be blocked from the broader public.

It would also require more internal checks before a public worker could have their information exempted from public disclosure.

Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, in remarks toward the end of the afternoon meeting of the Senate State Government and Elections Committee, described the bill as “probably the gnarliest problem” the committee had dealt with during the legislative session so far.

Initially, the bill had public employees and government transparency advocates at loggerheads, and lawmakers had to weigh privacy and safety interests against government transparency.

Survivors of violence, stalking and abuse, as well as advocates for survivors and public worker unions, testified in favor of an earlier version of the bill last week. They said they wanted to protect public workers who have faced death threats, intimidation and harassment in the line of duty and that abusive people can find out information about public workers, and where they work and live, by asking for government records.

Advocates for government transparency had argued that despite good intentions, earlier versions of the bill could have kept critical public information from coming to light. The Seattle Times testified against an earlier version of the legislation last week.

Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, said before the committee vote Tuesday that she thought the amended bill “strikes the right balance in terms of allowing the media to do its job and at the same time making sure that we are not helping abusers find their victims.”

The bill the Senate passed out of committee Tuesday would allow state agency and school employees to have certain identifying information, like their job titles, work location and work phone numbers, hidden from public disclosure if they provide a sworn statement under penalty of perjury that they experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, sexual abuse, harassment or stalking.

Under the amendments adopted Tuesday, that statement must be verified by the agency director or by someone the director designates, and include either the name of the perpetrator or perpetrators or documentation like a police report or a petition for a protection order.

Alternatively, an employee could provide proof they are part of the state’s address confidentiality program.

In a public hearing last week, government workers described being stalked and fearing abusers who sought or would seek out information about them and their location through the state’s Public Records Act.

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“This issue is deadly serious for a lot of public employees who are just trying to do their jobs,” said Erin Haick, of SEIU 925, a public employee union that supports the bill, in testimony last week.

Haick said after the committee vote Tuesday that SEIU 925 supported the amendments.

“As far as the documentation that’s required from employees, I think we tried to strike a balance there between not being overly burdensome on workers and hearing from people that they wanted a little bit more detail about the specific things that were happening that made a worker fearful,” Haick said.

Shontrana Gates-Wertman is an attorney with the Sexual Violence Law Center, which provides free legal help and representation to victims of sexual and gender-based violence in Washington. She told lawmakers that survivors are “particularly vulnerable to continued targeting” through their jobs when they work in the public sector.

“Burdening survivors with complicated or multiple requirements … to prove their victimization plays into old tropes that survivors lie,” Gates-Wertman said. “Research has shown us that it is just not true. In fact, most survivors do not disclose.”

Government transparency advocates and news organizations had testified against an earlier version of the bill last week, saying as written it could limit reporters’ ability to expose government wrongdoing, and that the mechanism for invoking the exemption was too broad.

Public records lawyer Kathy George, who has represented The Seattle Times in lawsuits, said the changed bill “still has some potential to hinder public accountability.”

“The media exemption is certainly an improvement over not letting anyone know about public employees who invoke this exemption, but absent some reason to believe the public records requester poses a threat, it would be better if everyone, not just the media, had the same access to information about their government,” George said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

In testimony last week, she pointed at protections already in state law.

Some information is already exempt from disclosure, including residential addresses, personal phone numbers, email and Social Security numbers of public employees.

But Mike Yestramski, a social worker at Western State Hospital and the president of the Washington Federation of State Employees, said that requesters can cross reference information they can get about public workers with other publicly available information.

Yestramski said he has been tracked down at his home by a person who made threatening gestures and targeted online by a person using the state’s public records laws, and said his colleagues have also faced threats and harassment.

“Those were folks that weaponized the public disclosure process to terrorize myself and other co-workers of mine,” Yestramski said in an interview.

Another existing exemption stops the release of information to co-workers or former co-workers who have stalked or harassed an agency employee. That’s in cases where the requester is the subject of a workplace harassment or stalking claim filed by the person they’re seeking information about, and the requester was disciplined as a result of that claim.

Public employees also must be notified when information that is exclusively in their personnel, payroll, training or supervisory files is requested through the Public Records Act, and an employee can seek a court order to have the information withheld.

News organizations and transparency advocates worried earlier versions of the bill could limit reporters’ ability to expose government wrongdoing, and that the mechanism for invoking the exemption was too broad.

The Seattle Times has conducted investigations that have relied heavily on state personnel records that could have been kept secret, even from the news media, if the employee invoked the exemption under the earlier version of the bill, including the disciplinary file of a former Washington State Patrol sergeant who was accused of sexual misconduct.

Another amendment adopted Tuesday, offered by Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, would require the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee to study whether the restriction on public records actually kept public employees safe, and whether it maintains public transparency, and report back by May 1, 2025.

He said in an interview that safe workplaces were paramount, but tracking the impact of the legislation could ensure it meets its intent.

“I don’t want to give somebody a false sense of security either,” Wilson said. “There are a lot of other things that we can do in the workplace to make it safer for workers, whether they’re public, state workers or they’re the private sector or they’re our school.”

The bill passed the House 80 to 15 in early March. The bill is expected to advance to the Senate floor.

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