We’ve become sadly used to the Trump administration subverting democracy, freedom of the press and governmental transparency on daily basis, with the arrogance, impunity and disdain for the citizenry that characterize a dictatorship.
We didn’t expect the same kind of behavior from the Washington state Legislature.
But with the secretive, old-fashioned, smoke-filled-room brutality of public-be-damned politics we thought had become extinct, both houses of the Legislature — now in the hands of the Democrats — powered through a cynical rebuke to the state’s Public Records Act last week.
Some background: For years, state legislators have exempted themselves from public records requirements that most other elected officials in the state must abide by. That exemption allowed lawmakers and legislative officials to withhold work calendars, emails and other documents.
Last year, 10 news organizations, including The Seattle Times, The Associated Press and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents weekly newspapers like this one, joined forces to challenge the Legislature’s public-records exemption.
A Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled that legislators had violated Washington’s Public Records Act. Legislators then decided to appeal that decision to the state Supreme Court. The legislators hired private attorneys, paid for with taxpayer dollars, to defend and extend the case.
Not willing to wait for a judicial determination, legislators instead wrote themselves a get-out-of-disclosure-free bill that cuts the courts out of the process altogether.
Senate Bill 6617, approved by both houses (with yes votes by all three District 12 legislators), feigns capitulation to the Superior Court’s conclusions by opening a constrained variety of public records to public review in the future. But it prohibits access to any records from the past and removes the judiciary from any appeal process.
The bill was secretly hatched, hastily jammed through committees without hearings and summarily voted on. It goes into effect immediately — the legislators declared an emergency, citing no impending threats to their sinecure — and exempted it from citizen initiatives.
Swift injustice, so to speak.
The bill is breathtaking in its audacity and dismissive treatment of Washington’s citizens. Its defenders claim the bill expands access and creates more transparency. Pardon the colloquially expressed skepticism — we’re just simple country folk out here in the Methow Valley — but what a crock.
The legislators either knew how it would be perceived and didn’t care, or out of some unfathomable ignorance they didn’t anticipate how it would be perceived. So they are indifferent to the outcome, or alarmingly obtuse. Either way, it raises troubling questions about what amounts to a feckless mockery of everything government should stand for.
Other media outlets around the state are not mincing words about what the bill intends.
From the Olympian:
“In a shocking display of secrecy, stealth and a Big Brother’s twist of truth, the Washington Legislature introduced and then hastily approved a bill that exempts legislators from the state Open Public Records Act … Our legislators’ actions bring to mind writer George Orwell’s nightmarish depiction of a Big Brother government that insisted truth was whatever it said was true. In that spirit, many lawmakers are patting themselves on the back for what they claim is a step toward legislative transparency. Don’t believe it.”
From the Seattle Times:
“Now, rather than comply with the court’s order and disclose the information they illegally withheld, your elected lawmakers are trying to cram through a bill to remove themselves from the state Public Records Act — a blatant attempt to circumvent the court ruling and keep their past communications and other records private … Senate Bill 6617 flies in the face of the trial court’s ruling, while trampling on voters’ right to know what their elected officials are doing on public time.”
From the Tacoma News Tribune:
“Unfortunately, legislative leaders have opted to amend our venerable public records law in the most opaque and precipitous way imaginable — without fair warning, robust public input or a clear understanding of the bill by rank-and-file lawmakers.”
That’s just the media being upset, you may say. But the news organizations that joined the suit against the Legislature are the public’s surrogates and advocates when it comes to demanding and expecting open government. It’s our obligation to hold government accountable. A hidden government is an unaccountable government.
Although the bill was approved by substantial margins in both houses, Gov. Jay Inslee should veto it, just so the lawmakers have to vote again and answer to the public for their actions — before they decide that’s off limits as well.