By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Lawmakers are contending that their recent decision to speedily pass a bill that many see as working to shield them from public records disclosure, was made with transparency in mind.
The bill was officially introduced to the Washington State House on Feb. 22, in response to a lawsuit filed in September 2017 by a media coalition led by The Associated Press. In its suit, the coalition challenged the state legislature’s assertion that its state officials are not subject to public records disclosure, in the same way other elected officials and state agencies are. In a January ruling, a Washington state judge sided with the media, saying the legislature was acting in direct violation of the law.
The bill passed through the House and Senate in 48 hours, with no public discussion. The speed with which the bill passed and the lack of public involvement received backlash from both the media and the public alike, who saw the move as anything but transparent. Citing this backlash, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed it, but said he would consider a similar bill in the future.
As written, the bill would have made some records public, but keep those already in existence private. It also would have prevented appealing a decision on a public records request, and included an “emergency” clause that would have made it effective immediately, if it had been signed into law.
While she said she doesn’t understand why the bill itself is “such a contentious issue,” Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos said she can see how its swift passage through the House and Senate could have given the public the wrong impression. She said the legislature acting with such haste “was indicative of the urgency with which we … felt, and led to believe that we had to deal with this issue.”
She said that the legislature was “running on two decades’ worth” of Attorneys General opinions, and that they had been told the personnel records the media contingent was suing to obtain were not public. She said the decision to push through the bill was based on the desire to make documents public.
“In order to do so, we should set up the right system, so we can process those disclosure requests efficiently and effectively. And, I’ll tell you, the idea that we have 147 separate state agencies is not efficient, nor effective, and would cost the public a great deal of money,” Santos said, referring to the number of state agencies the judge’s January order effectively created for each lawmaker in Washington state.
She also said her and her colleagues’ signatures on what she called a “mea culpa” letter to Gov. Inslee should show that she and others were uncomfortable with the lack of normal process on the bill.
Rep. Mia Gregerson also felt the process to be too speedy, but defended the language in the bill. She said the bill wasn’t the end of the road; rather, it was a “first step forward,” and that many legislators supported the bill as a gesture of good faith.
“We wanted to open it up, without accidentally hurting constituents,” Gregerson said, referring to lawmakers’ assertion that fully open public records could lead to constituents’ correspondences with lawmakers becoming public.
Lynne Baab, a Santos constituent, was concerned about how quickly lawmakers pushed through the bill, more than she was with the content of the bill — but only because“I had no time to think about the content.”
“I think what Congress is doing in Washington, D.C. — rushing bills through — should absolutely not be replicated in Washington state,” Baab said. “It’s bad enough that the Republicans do this, but Democrats should not do this! We are trying to advocate for appropriate, legal process, which means that all voices should be heard. It means that the public should be able to comment, and that bills should be deliberated over, often for a very long time.”
Baab said she strove to understand lawmakers’ thinking process on speeding the bill through the legislature, and said she could see where they were coming from, if they felt pressured to pass it. It also helped her to see that there may be “great pressure on Republican lawmakers to speed things through.”
“Obviously, our lawmakers feel pressure … and I may not know all the reasons,” Baab said. “I want to say they must feel tremendous pressure, and that’s why they do things too quickly. But I wish they wouldn’t, and that’s why I feel like they’ve done something that makes me unhappy.”
As for the content of the bill, Baab said the little she knew about it raised her hackles.
“It feels to me like open records are always better than closed records, and so it does raise questions about what was going on,” Baab said. “If there is a public comment period, and if it appears that lots of … the public want to keep records closed, or lots of advocacy groups want records to stay closed, well, okay, let’s hear all those arguments.”
Carolyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.