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Sunday, July 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Lawmakers can’t justify self-serving secrecy

It shouldn’t be necessary, but 10 news organizations, including The Spokesman-Review, are suing the Washington Legislature because it won’t release information that other politicians must divulge.

Under an effort spearheaded by the Associated Press earlier this year, news outlets requested copies of all 147 lawmakers’ calendars documenting their official schedules and work-related text messages.

The Legislature’s attorneys responded by saying that material didn’t qualify as “public records” under a change quietly pushed through during the 1995 legislative session. If nothing else, this stubborn stand on their claimed exemption demonstrates one thing: Legislature leaders clearly do not embrace the spirit of the voter-approved Public Disclosure Act.

That law, adopted overwhelmingly in 1972 states, in part, “full access to information concerning the conduct of government on every level must be assured as a fundamental and necessary precondition to the sound governance of a free society.”

If lawmakers agreed with that, they would release the material requested. Some lawmakers have, showing they do believe in the “transparency” mantra they all seemingly utter when they run for office. But they are the exception. The rest cling to the exemption, which will be the focus of the lawsuit.

Of course, they could pass a law ending this purported exemption, if they wanted to.

They could hold themselves to the same standard as city council members, county commissioners and mayors, if they wanted to. All of them must release such material under the law.

The state Supreme Court has ruled that under limited executive privilege, the governor might be able ward off some public records requests, if he wanted to. But he doesn’t.

So why do they?

Perhaps, that’s a silly question following a secretive legislative session that transformed how K-12 education is funded. The back-and-forth of those negotiations were treated as none of the public’s business, even by lawmakers who support more transparent talks between government and labor unions as they negotiate contracts.

One justification is to protect the privacy of constituents who communicate with them. So to protect you, allegedly, they can also protect lobbyists and other powerful interests. Another reason is that it makes their jobs easier, though they phrase it more artfully.

But if those are valid reasons, why don’t they extend the exemption to other elected officials? Probably because that would create a storm of protest. The Public Disclosure Act would be severely neutered.

None of this actually matters if you don’t care. If there already were public protests about this self-serving exemption, lawmakers wouldn’t bother defending against the lawsuit. They would know that a legal victory would translate into an electoral defeat.

It’s not too late to convey your expectations.

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