Local Lawmakers Explain Votes on Controversial Public Records Bill

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Local lawmakers defended their votes on a bill passed last week that limits their public disclosures, largely telling The Chronicle the move was an imperfect solution with no better alternatives.

“It’s certainly not my proudest moment in the Legislature,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia. “The timing was poor, the process was poor, but I wasn’t given a choice of ... this timing or some other timing. I wasn’t given the choice between a perfect solution and a better solution.”

In response to a court ruling that subjected lawmakers to public records laws, officials quickly passed legislation to retroactively exempt the Legislature. The bill only requires disclosure of legislators’ schedules and communication with lobbyists, a step beyond what was previously required but far smaller than the scope of the legal ruling. The bill was passed in less than two days with no public hearings or committee meetings. 

Despite the public and media backlash, legislators said action was necessary to correct what they perceived as a problematic ruling. 

“It would change the way we respond to people and do things,” said Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis. 

He argued that the ruling offered no privacy protection for constituents who email his office needing help. 

“I hope that we can protect our constituents. ... I would hate to think that they can no longer get help that they need.”

Rep. Brian Blake, R-Aberdeen, argued that passing the bill was a better solution than continuing to contest the legal ruling, which would have cost the state more money and struck disclosure requirements altogether if successful.

“It’s an attempt to put into (law) a new section of code that requires us to be more transparent than we have been in the past,” he said. 

Still, he admitted, “the process stinks.”

The bill “came way too fast,” Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, concurred, but was the result of a waning session in which lawmakers had limited time to address the issue. 

“We were also put in a position where we had to do something to protect the privacy of our constituents,” he said. “Had it been a longer session, I think we would have had more time.”

Even amid all the yes votes, legislators acknowledged qualms with the bill. 

Blake said the text’s definition of constituent — anyone who is not a registered lobbyist — is potentially too broad. He wants the Legislature to look at drawing narrower exemptions, perhaps protecting a domestic violence victim asking for help but requiring disclosure for a senior group seeking money. 

“Generally the public has a right to know who we're meeting with, and I want folks to know who I met with, so they can form their own opinions about who was influenced,” he said. 

Blake was among multiple lawmakers calling the bill a stopgap and not a once-and-for-all solution. 

“I viewed it as an improvement, if not a perfect final product,” Braun said. “I thought that was the right thing to do, with full knowledge that we’ve got to continue working on this. We’re not done.”

Of the five lawmakers interviewed for this story, DeBolt was the only one to not express frustration with the haste and secrecy with which the bill came forward.

“I don't know about that,” he said. “I just know what's in front of me when I vote.”

Only one lawmaker in the 19th and 20th districts opposed the bill: Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen.

“This sends a terrible signal,” Walsh said. “It reinforces some of ordinary voters' worst impressions of how the Legislature and the political process in general works, especially on a matter of transparency and public records. I think the term is a tin ear. … This is a bill that is about transparency and disclosure, and they wanted to do it in a way that is not transparent.”

While Walsh was no fan of the process, he agreed with his colleagues that the Legislature’s hand was forced by what he viewed as a bad court ruling. Still, he said, that didn’t excuse the response.

“If we'd been able to work it through that hearing process better, we could have made it a better bill,” Walsh said. “We could have gotten the bill to a place where I would have voted yes.”

Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview did not respond by press time requests for comment. 

The bill, Senate Bill 6617, explicitly exempts lawmakers from the state’s Public Records Act, and applies immediately and retroactively — meaning that existing records going back to statehood would be off limits to disclosure requests. The legislation allows disclosure of lawmakers’ calendars and communications with registered lobbyists, but only documents created after July 1, 2018.

The decree was prompted by a lawsuit brought by the Associated Press, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, and other regional papers against lawmakers who denied a records request that journalists made last year for lawmakers’ internal communications and information on incidents of sexual harassment. A Thurston County judge ruled in favor of the news organizations. 

Public outcry over the bill was immediate. On Feb. 27, 13 daily newspapers across Washington state published front-page editorials condemning the bill, and the Seattle Times reported that over the weekend, Gov. Jay Inslee had received over 500 emails from citizens criticizing the legislation. On Monday alone, his office received 200 phone calls from people opposing the bill, according to the report.

The newspapers are calling on Inslee to veto the bill and force lawmakers to override the veto, which they appear able to do having passed the legislation with veto-proof majorities. 

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The Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Olympia Bureau contributed to this report.