OLYMPIA – A public records task force created after Washington lawmakers attempted to exempt themselves from the state’s Public Records Act is set to convene its first of four meetings.
The task force – which includes Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley and Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane – is comprised of eight lawmakers, three media representatives, three members of the public and an open government advocate. Three additional meetings over the next four months will cover topics ranging from the value of open government to how local governments handle public records. Dates for the remaining meetings – which will be open to the public – have not yet been set.
Wednesday’s inaugural meeting will address the topic that caused tension between the Legislature and a coalition of media groups that sued last year: The issue of legislative records and lawmakers’ assertion that they are not subject to the same disclosure rules that apply to other elected officials.
The creation of the task force came after a contentious battle over a bill earlier this year – contested by the media and open government advocates – in which lawmakers had sought to change the law to retroactively specify that the state’s voter-approved Public Records Act did not apply to the legislative branch. Lawmakers introduced and passed the bill – which allowed for a more limited legislative disclosure obligation for things like daily calendars and correspondence with lobbyists – in two days, overriding all normal legislative procedures to quickly advance it with minimal public input. After thousands of people called or emailed the governor’s office in opposition, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the measure.
That bill was in response to a lawsuit filed by a media coalition, led by the Associated Press, who asserted lawmakers were violating the law by not releasing emails, schedules and reports of sexual harassment. In January, a Thurston County superior court judge ruled that while the Washington Legislature, the House and Senate were not subject to the Public Records Act, the statute was clear that the offices of individual lawmakers were covered by the law. That ruling has been appealed, and is currently awaiting arguments before the state Supreme Court.
No recommendations are expected from the task force, though a report is expected in December if the group can reach consensus. Democratic Rep. Larry Springer, a co-chair of the task force, said he hoped that even as a Supreme Court hearing on the media coalition’s lawsuit looms, the group could find areas of agreement.
“I think the Legislature by and large now recognizes that we shouldn’t be exempt from the Public Records Act,” he said. “Now the question becomes, if we’re going to be subject to the PRA, are there special circumstances that should be considered? And I think yes, there should.”
One legislative member of the task force – Republican Rep. Shea – recently referred to the media as “dirty, godless, hateful people” at a gun rights rally. While a few editorial boards and others have called for him to be removed from the group, House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox said he had confidence that Shea would leave his personal opinions aside and represent the interests of the entire caucus. Shea, who generally does not agree to interviews, did not respond to requests for comment.
A task force member representing the public is David Ammons, a former longtime AP reporter who later worked for the secretary of state’s office and is now a commissioner on the Public Disclosure Commission. Ammons noted that he’s worked on both sides of the issue – requesting records as a reporter, then working to disclose them as a state employee – and said the meetings are an opportunity to lower the temperature of the debate.
“What I’m hoping for is to re-engage a conversation between legislators and the public and the press,” he said. “That conversation didn’t happen earlier because the bill moved too quickly for any kind of conversation on the pros and cons of what they were doing.”
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