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Let’s hear the case for secrecy

News organizations, including The Spokesman-Review, and attorneys for the Legislature are duking it out in court over the exemption lawmakers claim they granted themselves to public records law.

The issue came to a head when news outlets, led by the Associated Press, requested copies of all 147 lawmakers’ calendars documenting their official schedules and work-related text messages.

The Legislature refused, noting that in 1995 it amended the voter-approved Public Records Act of 1972. It’s just that people didn’t notice. But, of course, lawmakers could’ve advertised their wish for an exemption and held hearings, but that would’ve drawn unwanted attention.

Ten media outlets are challenging this under-the-radar change in Thurston County Superior Court.

“People would have appeared and objected to that,” media attorney Michele-Earl Hubbard, told the Associated Press. “They never made clear that’s what they were doing.”

Two legislators – Rep. Paul Graves, R-Fall City, and Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle – say they will introduce a bill removing the exemption, which would render the legal battle moot.

That would be the ideal solution.

A bill would force opponents to utter “why we should get an exemption” arguments, rather than hide behind the legalistic “because we can” explanations.

Let’s hear legislators explain why they need freedom from public records law, when they won’t grant the same exemptions to mayors, city council members and county commissioners. What is it about their jobs that makes transparency uniquely debilitating?

The state Supreme Court has granted the governor an exemption under “executive privilege,” but Gov. Jay Inslee has waived the privilege in the interests of open government, so why do lawmakers need it?

The old-standby excuses are a need for “frank” discussions with constituents while protecting their privacy. So, you see, they’re not doing it for themselves, they’re doing it for you, if you should ever want to communicate with them. And if lobbyists and other powerful interests are also granted that privacy, oh well. Please note that these are the folks who regularly have the ears of legislators.

The public has a right to be suspicious of anyone defending secret communications. It certainly has an interest in knowing who our representatives are meeting with.

An overwhelming 72 percent of voters said yes to the Public Records Act. Ever since then, lawmakers have created hundreds of exceptions. But granting themselves a broad exemption from the law is particularly audacious.

If legislators ever want to come out from behind their attorneys and make an affirmative case for secrecy, we’re all ears. Just make sure it’s a public hearing publicized well in advance.

Heck, we might even supply the popcorn.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on “Opinion.”



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Editorial: Washington state lawmakers scramble to keep public in the dark

State lawmakers want to create a legislative loophole in Washington’s Public Records Act. While it’s nice to see Democrats and Republicans working together for once, it’s just too bad that their agreement is that the public is the enemy. As The Spokesman-Review’s Olympia reporter Jim Camden explained Feb. 22, lawmakers could vote on a bill today responding to a court order that the people of Washington are entitled to review legislative records.