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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Camden: Committee’s fate grows cloudy

By Jim Camden
Published: May 31, 2023, 6:03am

While Western Washington is well-known for its lack of sunny days — a valid description for November through March, but generally a bad rap in the summer — the entire state could soon lose a key source of sunshine.

It could lose the Sunshine Committee, the more common title of the Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee. As the more formal name suggests, this appointed state body takes a look at information the government collects but the public doesn’t get to see.

Washington has a law, passed by the voters in 1972, that information collected and kept by public agencies at public expense should be available to the public unless the Legislature passes a law exempting all or part of that record.

The Sunshine Committee includes legislators, attorneys, journalists and members of the public who meet every few months to wade through the mountain of exemptions the Legislature has approved over the decades. The committee tries to determine whether the need for certain exemptions still exists, and whether the Legislature should repeal, amend or expand them.

After study and careful consideration, it sends a yearly report on recommendations to the Legislature. The Legislature, in turn, usually does little or nothing with those recommendations.

This has become a source of frustration for Sunshine Committee members, as was made clear at last week’s quarterly meeting. Someone made a motion to dissolve the committee, which was quickly seconded.

Spokane Rep. Jenny Graham, a recent committee member, said the Legislature has been wrestling with tough issues in recent years, like COVID-19, police pursuit and drug possession laws. With those out of the way, things could improve, she suggested.

But this isn’t just a problem from the past few years, committee chair Linda Krese said. “This has been true all along.”

KXLY News Director Melissa Luck, the newest committee member, said if members recommend the committee be dissolved, they should make it clear they aren’t saying the work is unimportant.

“I think the committee is saying the government doesn’t think this is important,” Luck said.

Jennifer Steele, an assistant attorney general and committee member, said there’s a problem with putting in the work to make recommendations and having the Legislature not do anything. Perhaps the Legislature could give some direction what exemptions they want reviewed or the committee could ask them to at least hold hearings on its recommendations.

Maybe the committee should first ask the Legislature for a budget that would provide for a staff that could do research, Graham said: “If you have a committee like this, you want it to function well.”

There may be a question about how well the Legislature wants the committee to function. But there seems little doubt that it can’t dissolve itself.

“We can’t go away on our own,” Springer said. “The Legislature has to make that happen.”

Eventually, the committee dropped, for the time being, any motion to dissolve. But that may not matter in the long run.

Sen. Jeff Wilson, a committee member, said he has told staff to draft a bill repealing the statute that created the committee, which would automatically wipe it out. That bill can’t be introduced until January, so even if it passes the Sunshine Committee will exist at least on paper until mid-2024, when bills from that session take effect.

By then, however, it may have no leadership, no agenda and possibly even no chance of a quorum as members quit out of frustration and new appointees become hard to find.

If lawmakers are truly interested in this type of Sunshine, they could consider an alternative. Instead of eliminating the committee, they could provide it with a staff for research and assistance, a yearly resolution asking for review of specific exemptions, and a guarantee that bills based on recommendations will be considered in a House or Senate committee.