Nearly 50 years after the state’s voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative creating the Washington Public Records Act (PRA), we’re still relying on interpretations about how it should be enforced and what exemptions are legitimate.
There’s hardly any better clarity than that offered last week when the Washington Supreme Court affirmed, in a 7-2 decision, that state legislators are indeed subject to the act — despite their high-handed actions to the contrary.
The state’s highest court backed an earlier Superior Court ruling that “the plain and unambiguous language of the Public Records Act applies to the offices of senators and representatives …”
It wasn’t that plain to everyone, it seems. The Legislature has asserted for years that it is exempt from the full force of the Public Records Act, which the voters endorsed in 1972, and clandestinely enacted legislation in 2005 and 2007 to bolster that point of view. News organizations across the state — including the Methow Valley News, through its membership in the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association — challenged that notion in court. After the Superior Court’s decision, the Legislature appealed.
It didn’t have to come to this. The Legislature’s arrogance and obstinacy in defending its absurdist arguments — which basically came down to “we’re not like the rest of you” — resulted in wasted time and money to reach the “plain and unambiguous language” interpretation that was evident all along.
The Legislature has been nothing if not consistent in its resistance to obeying the same disclosure laws that uniformly apply to every other elected official in the state, including our local school board and town council members. In 2018, legislation to dramatically expand legislators’ exemptions from the Public Records Act was hustled through the Legislature at the last minute, with no review or discussion. After intense media and public criticism, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the legislation and the legislators let the veto stand.
Displaying not a whit of shame or regret, the lawmakers were back at it earlier this year, in the 2019 legislative session, with a clumsily reworked version of the earlier proposal that still kept much legislative activity out of public view. Lawmakers put a smiley face on it, but no one was fooled. It, too, drew fierce scrutiny and went nowhere. Legislators blamed the legislation’s failure to advance on the public and the news media for ganging up on the proposal.
That left the news organizations’ lawsuit as the last best hope for a public-friendly outcome. It’s hard to know what outcome the legislators were expecting. In any event, they got lumps of coal in their Christmas stockings.
The Supreme Court’s decision creates a legal distinction that may take some sorting out. While the court declared that “We hold that under the plain meaning of the PRA, individual legislators are ‘agencies’ subject in full to the PRA’s general public records disclosure mandate,” the Legislature itself is not an “agency” and may be subject to narrower disclosure rules. Within that definition, some legislators may be looking for hidey-holes in which to stash information.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling, the public and news media organizations shouldn’t relax and assume good behavior on the Legislature’s part. They’ve been used to dodging the Public Records Act for a long time and it will take some time for them to get used to complying. But it’s not too much to ask legislators to step up and meet the same expectations our local officials have been fulfilling for decades. The Public Records Act needs to be functional for at least another 50 years — and beyond. Only constant vigilance will assure that.