Sometimes the loud, insistence voices make a difference — especially if they have a meaningful point to make, and the public’s confidence in government is at stake.
A powerful wave of scornful, angry public reaction played a big role in Gov. Jay Inslee’s veto last week of SB 6617, which would have largely exempted the state’s legislators from Washington’s Public Records Act, retroactively and henceforth. Both houses of the Legislature had overwhelmingly approved the bill, which was introduced, blasted through a minimal process and summarily approved in the span of 48 hours.
Quoting from a story by our WNPA Olympia Bureau’s news team, “The reaction was swift and severe. On Feb. 27, 13 daily newspapers across Washington published editorials calling on Inslee to veto the legislation. By March 1, the governor’s office had received nearly 12,000 emails, 5,600 phone calls, and more than 100 letters from constituents regarding the bill.”
Some legislators seemed taken aback by the storm of disapproval, and continued to defend the bill in the face of scathing dissections that revealed the legislation’s stark intent: to continue blocking the public from seeing how the lawmakers do their business.
I guess they didn’t think we’d notice what a disingenuous argument they were making for their phony brand of public transparency.
The genesis of SB 6617 occured last year, when 10 news organizations from around the state joined forces to challenge the Legislature’s long-time, self-crafted public-records exemptions. 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. And after that came the surprise introduction of SB 6617, a counterattack on the media lawsuit.
The news media, in their traditional watchdog role, growled fast and fiercely. But they only primed the pump for the public’s response. It was the people doing most of the speaking — rather strongly, it turns out — to demand that legislators make themselves accountable in the same way that the state’s other elected officials already are.
Inslee spent last Thursday — the deadline for him to decide whether to veto the bill — talking with legislators and news media representatives about alternatives. Ultimately, an agreement was reached: Inslee would veto the bill, and the Legislature would not attempt to override it. The media organizations agreed to join the defendants in the previous lawuit to seek a stay on enforcement of the ruling while the suit proceeds in an appeal now before the state Supreme Court.
In the wake of the maelstrom of public outcry againt SB 6617, some legislators who had voted for it admitted that the process was flawed and they (sorta) regretted that. But many didn’t speak to, or stubbornly clung to, the bill’s egregious flaws. Rep. Mike Steele of the 12th district issued a boilerplate mansplainer of a statement to the effect that “The Legislative Public Records Act was actually an attempt to increase disclosure and transparency for the state Legislature, which in the past, had always been exempt from the Public Records Act. It was a good effort, but the process failed … we did not meet the public’s rightful expectation of a fair and open public discussion on the merits of the bill.” The same language, obviously scripted, was used by other backpedaling legislators around the state.
Sorry, Rep. Steele and the rest of you. It was a bad effort to shove through a bad bill of bad intent. I think our 12th District legislators — including Sen. Brad Hawkins and Rep. Cary Condotta, who along with Steele supported the bill — represent us pretty well and are attentive to the district’s issues. But they should stop insulting our intelligence by their continued defense of the indefensible. This Frankenstein monster of a bill the Legislature birthed is not going to get any prettier.
The public disclosure exemptions the Legislature has clung to remain an issue, in the formal legal system as well as the court of public opinion. As part of Inslee’s brokered agreement, some sort of group or ad hoc committee including legislators and news media representatives will be formed to draft potential legislation for the 2019 session.
I’ll say this: They’ll have our attention. The drumbeat started by the media was picked up and amplified by an indignant public. The longer our legislators insist on creating a special category of exclusive exemptions for themselves, the voices will get louder.