Would you rather get mugged from behind in the dark by an anonymous attacker? Or be knocked senseless in broad daylight with the readily identifiable assailant looking right at you and smiling?
Some of our state legislators apparently are ready to do either, and call it good for you.
In last year’s session, you may recall, a measure to drastically expand legislators’ exemptions from the state’s Public Records Act — which applies equally to all other elected officials in the state — was secretly, hastily and shamelessly blasted through the Legislature at the last minute. It happened literally under cover of darkness, perhaps the most opaque transparency bill ever. There was no opportunity for public review or discussion. Many legislators didn’t even know what was in the bill, and voted for it anyway. After intense media and public criticism, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the atrocity, and the legislators let the veto stand.
The lofty but vacuous reasoning behind that legislative attempt to hide legislative activities and correspondence from public view was bad enough. The arrogance and deviousness of its clandestine passage through the process made it worse. The legislators were hiding the documentation of what it was they wanted to hide. As if we wouldn’t notice.
Later, an ad hoc committee was formed to come up with an alternate solution. After some ineffective thrashing around, that group pretty much accomplished what most between-session committees accomplish: nothing.
This year, like a Klingon warship de-cloaking just before it fires on you, legislators opted for the appearance of amity. They trotted out what they tried to sell as a shiny new Public Records Act exemption proposal that actually looked a lot like the same smash-and-grab job they attempted to pull on us last year. It was subsequently banished to not-this-yearville after brief examination revealed it as a shabbily redressed version of last year’s vagrant legislation, and after more public outcry — much of it from the state’s news media representatives. Silly us, taking the Public Records Act seriously. (The voters certainly did, when they overwhelmingly approved it in 1972).
The most discouraging part of all this: Many of our legislators just don’t get it. Or still don’t get it, even after last year’s debacle. The tangled weasel-wording of the “good faith” 2019 version still put much legislative activity behind a wall of nondisclosure, with the assurance that it was only meant to protect everyone’s interests.
Insert your favorite colorful, skeptical epithet here. Most of them wouldn’t be printable in a family publication. But we get your drift, and so (rather petulantly) did the Legislature, while accusing the media and public of sabotage. It’s all our fault for insisting that legislators are not above the law. Here’s how the Seattle Times characterized it: “Blaming the media and open-government advocates, Democratic lawmakers said Tuesday that their latest proposal to govern the Legislature’s release of its own records is all but dead.”
It doesn’t deserve an RIP, unless it’s “rot in purgatory.”
The Legislature has argued for years that it is exempt from the full force of the Public Records Act because … well, they’re special. News organizations across the state — including the Methow Valley News, through its membership in the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association — challenged that notion in court, and a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled that the legislators were indeed breaking the law. His finding was unequivocal: “The plain and unambiguous language of the Public Records Act applies to the offices of senators and representatives …” The decision was appealed and likely will come before the state Supreme Court for review this year.
Plain and unambiguous language is not entirely beyond the ken of the Legislature. GOP proposals offered last year and in this session would have required compliance with the Public Records Act. They went nowhere.
A Supreme Court decision affirming the Public Record Act’s primary would go a long way toward settling the issue. But you know those pesky open government advocates — they’re always nattering away about how the people’s business should be done with the people’s full access and awareness. As long as there are public officials trying to hide something, we’ll be the ones shining the spotlight on them.
– Don Nelson