Among the special privileges that the state’s legislators enjoy is one that other public officials in Washington state do not.
While public records requests for detailed documentation about the activities of local elected officials must typically be fulfilled — often at some expense and effort — members of the state Senate and House are not held to the same strict disclosure standards.
They exempted themselves from that level of full public scrutiny, deliberately. And illegally, according to a recent lawsuit filed by the Associated Press (AP).
The lawsuit challenges the lawmakers’ longtime assertion that a dubious amendment to the state’s public disclosure law in 1995 absolved them from providing records such as work-related emails, daily schedules and text messages.
Those records are accessible at every other level of government in state — but not from legislators.
The AP was joined in the lawsuit by public radio’s Northwest News Network, KING-TV, KIRO 7, Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington (which represents the dailies), the Spokesman-Review, Sound Publishing, Tacoma News Inc., the Seattle Times and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association (WNPA).
The WNPA’s participation is noteworthy, as the organization represents about 100 of the state’s weeklies — newspapers that often lack the resources to pursue complicated records requests. Nonetheless, they should have the ability to, at every level of state government.
That’s especially important to me as a small-town publisher, and someone who’s active in the industry. I’ve been president of the WNPA for the past two years and will step down in October. WNPA operates on our members’ behalf — including lobbying and legal assistance — with a budget that is much smaller than that of any other party to the lawsuit. But I quickly supported AP’s request that the WNPA contribute funds toward the suit, as did other WNPA board members. We’ve got skin in the game, and are proud to be part of it.
According to AP’s story about the lawsuit, “Without access to such records, it’s harder for the public to know who is trying to influence their state lawmakers on important policy decisions, which groups and individuals they are meeting with and what the priorities are as they debate spending tens of millions of dollars each year in tax money.”
In 1972, state voters overwhelmingly approved Initiative 276, the Public Disclosure Act. The act has been chipped away at over the years, but it remains the foundation for public disclosure and open meetings requirements that are still widely applicable. I-276 expressed the will of state’s voters, and 72 percent of them approved it. In 1995, the Legislature quietly altered disclosure requirements so legislators could withhold certain records, thwarting the voters’ clearly expressed will.
Earlier this year, the parties to the AP lawsuit filed requests for records from all 147 state legislators. A few complied, but most ignored the requests. The requests were for calendars showing whom the legislators met with, and text messages that were sent or received as part of the legislative duties. A second round of requests resulted in similar indifference or resistance.
Local public officials can’t simply shrug off such requests. The Washington state Supreme Court recently ruled, in the case of a county prosecutor, that public employees’ work-related text messages on a private cell phone are public records.
The AP’s action is more than a nuisance suit. Absent such push-back from the news media, civic-minded organizations and regular citizens, access will continue to erode. And with the legitimate news media under authoritarian assault form the highest levels of national government, it’s vital that we fight for our First Amendment rights wherever they are in jeopardy.
Open government is not just a high-minded concept. It should be an everyday expectation at every level where the public’s money is spent and its well-being is at stake. It’s the expectation that the Methow Valley News brings to its coverage of local government.
It will take a while for the suit to grind its way through the legal system, and the outcome is uncertain. Meantime, we’re going to suggest to our state representatives that they join the voluntary disclosure side of the issue. Maybe you should do the same.