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Shawn Vestal: Public records law strong for everyone but lawmakers

UPDATED: Thu., April 13, 2017, 11:02 p.m.

Washington State legislature majority leaders, from left, Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, and Rep. Frank Chopp, the House Speaker, form a panel to discuss school funding at the annual Associated Press Legislative Preview at the Washinton State Capitol Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State legislature majority leaders, from left, Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, and Rep. Frank Chopp, the House Speaker, form a panel to discuss school funding at the annual Associated Press Legislative Preview at the Washinton State Capitol Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

None of your business.

Wondering how the Legislature’s coming along in its negotiations over funding education? Wondering who the legislative leaders are meeting with as they try to hash it out?

None of your business.

Wondering why the four top legislative leaders involved consider themselves immune to the spirit of a public records law meant to allow citizens to assert their ownership of the government? Why they hold themselves above rules that mayors and city council members and county commissioners and dogcatchers have to follow?

None of your business.

That seems to be the position of Ritzville Sen. Mark Schoesler, the Senate majority leader, and three fellow poo-bahs in the state Legislature: Democratic House Speaker Frank Chopp, Senate Democratic Minority Leader Sharon Nelson, and Republican House Minority Speaker Dan Kristiansen.

These lawmakers rejected a records request from media outlets seeking to gather information about their deliberations trying to negotiate a plan to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s McCleary order to improve school funding. And they have refused to discuss why.

None of your business. Schoesler put it explicitly earlier this year, when he answered a reporter who wondered – reasonably, given how long Schoesler and his colleagues have failed to do their jobs on this issue – when the GOP would come up with an education plan.

“John, none of your business,” Schoesler told the inquiring reporter. “You’ll be the last to know.”

Just shut up, you people, and wait for the senator to tell you what you need to know.

Washington has excellent public record laws in many ways – laws that provide the public enough legal access that it regularly provokes complaints from government servants who have to follow them.

Which might be a sign that it works.

Recall that Spokane city officials blamed a mountain of record requests as an excuse for their delayed – and politically convenient – release of damaging records in the Frank Straub case. Without the law, there would have been no way to get closer to the truth in that case, given that the administration was determined to keep it hidden.

State lawmakers are largely exempted from public records requirements, which makes no sense but isn’t surprising. The result is that the state’s records law is excellently broad, except when it comes to the public officials who make the laws.

Mayor David Condon’s emails are a public record, for example, while Schoesler’s are not. County Commissioner Al French’s public schedule is a public record, while Schoesler’s is not. Working drafts of city ordinances are public records, handwritten notes made during deliberations by public officials are public records, even officials’ text messages can be public records, but Schoesler and company deliberate in the dark.

They might be extra sensitive about the sausage they’re grinding on education. At this point, it’s a statewide embarrassment that the Legislature has not complied with the state Supreme Court’s order to improve education funding to align with the state Constitution’s order to “amply” fund schools. The Legislature has been in contempt of court since 2014.

A lot of the delay has come from Schoesler and his team, who simply don’t want to comply. The arguments in recent years from Republicans have not been about how to meet the order, but about how to get around it, which programs to raid to avoid seeking new revenue, and how to erode and question the court’s authority. All while continuing their regular routine of running down teachers and public schools. It was comical this year to hear some of them complain that they were not getting the credit they deserved for proposing increased funding this year, as though they were not being dragged to do it kicking and screaming.

There are good reasons for the public to want – and deserve – to know how these talks are proceeding. Who’s talking to whom. How often and when they’re meeting. Where the points of agreement and disagreement lie. The Seattle Times and the Northwest News Network filed records requests, seeking the legislative calendars of leadership, as well as emails regarding budget and education deliberations.

This was as much a demonstration as anything – a check to see if the lawmakers might provide records that the public would clearly have a legitimate interest in, despite the fact that they were exempted from the law.

All four said no.

All four refused to talk to the Times about why they said no.

I asked Schoesler’s office for an interview on the subject this week – no dice. I was guided instead toward an off-the-record conversation with someone who could explain the legal reasons for the refusal.

None of my business. Or yours, which is the problem. These lawmakers might be following the letter of the law, but they are violating its spirit.



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