It’s Sunshine Week, the time when open government is promoted and barriers to transparency are exposed.
The Associated Press filed its annual records requests for a week’s worth of emails and daily calendars with governors and legislative leaders and got less response than in previous years. That’s not good.
Washington’s four top legislative leaders all declined the request, citing the exemption in the Public Records Act. The law gives them the option to say yes. Gov. Jay Inslee’s office fully complied with the requests, even though the state Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the governor has an executive privilege to disregard some requests. Upon taking office, Inslee has said he would not invoke the privilege.
Idaho’s top four legislative leaders complied after requesting an extension. Gov. Butch Otter’s office also released the requested records. Oregon’s top lawmakers and governor also complied with the requests.
So why the differences? Because each state defines “public record” differently. In Washington state, the definition is narrower: “Reports or correspondence made or received” by individual members of the Legislature are not public records.
Aside from self-interest, there is nothing stopping legislators from broadening the definition. Washington legislators do not face unique circumstances that require them to have more secrecy than their counterparts in other states.
But they still tried to justify it. The leaders who were sent the requests were House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle; House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish; Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville; and Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island.
Chopp said if the request were narrower, he might’ve complied. Schoesler said the exemption is needed because legislators get correspondence from whistleblowers and domestic violence victims that ought to be protected.
But, the Associated Press reported, “The identity of people who are reporting ‘improper governmental action’ is exempt from public inspection under the state Public Records Act. There are also exemptions in place for domestic violence programs.”
The identity of these email correspondents can be protected in an effort to broaden the definition of “public records.” Blocking the release of any emails over concerns about a tiny fraction of them is the easy way out.
The pressure to lift or narrow the exemption will have to come from the public. If you don’t believe lawmakers need special treatment under the Public Records Act, you’ll need to make some noise. If you want a glimpse into who might be influencing them, you’ll need to make some noise.
There is a lot of communication in the public interest that is shielded because of the way the law is written. Other public officials in Washington state are compelled to release their emails. Legislators in other states are also compelled to do so.
Washington legislators don’t need special treatment.
To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on “Opinion.”
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