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Senate approves bill to strengthen public access to state records

Rachel La Corte Associated Press

OLYMPIA – The state Senate passed a bill Monday that would prevent agencies from denying public records requests that are too broad but would limit access to sex offender records and even those of state lawmakers.

The measure, aimed at strengthening the state’s so-called sunshine laws, passed on a 42-4 vote. The House passed the bill last month on an 89-6 vote, but since the Senate added the two amendments adding exceptions, it must go back to the House for concurrence before going to the governor.

“It adds our legislative offices to those that have a certain amount of confidentiality,” said Sen. Marilyn Rasmussen, D-Eatonville who sponsored one of the amendments. “It means that somebody can’t come in on a fishing trip and try to find out who called you, who talked to you and what was the nature of their business.”

Critics say the amendments added by the Senate only weaken public access.

Lawmakers “have exempted their offices from public disclosure,” said Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers. “You could go in and ask to see a member’s correspondence, when they were responding to special interest groups, when they were dealing with their constituents. It’s essentially what keeps the offices honest. This exempts them from disclosing any of that.”

The other amendment would exempt records relating to information used by law enforcement agencies and the Department of Corrections to evaluate sex offenders for post-release conditions and assigning a sex-offender level.

Some lawmakers said the media would be allowed to review the information, but wouldn’t be able to take it with them. The amendment doesn’t address that.

“What we’re trying to do is protect those victims from being re-victimized,” said Sen. Dale Brandland, R-Bellingham. “For me the issue is erring on the side of victims.”

But opponents said adding this controversial amendment threatens the overall bill.

“We may end up having no bill at all,” said Sen. Steven Johnson, R-Kent, who voted against the bill Monday. “This amendment should be debated by itself on the merits apart from this bill.”

The bill responds to a state Supreme Court decision last May that shocked open government advocates. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that government can ignore public records requests if they’re too broad, and endorsed use of the attorney-client privilege as a tool for refusing public records requests.

The main portion of the bill is what was requested by Attorney General Rob McKenna. It removes “overbroadness” as a justification for refusing public records requests. The bill allows agencies to work with members of the public to narrow their requests, and increases fines for government agencies that don’t comply with the law.

The bill doesn’t deal with the attorney-client privilege issue.

McKenna did not support the amendments, and his special assistant for government accountability called them a “poison pill.”

“These amendments are very controversial topics that will probably impede ultimate passage,” said Greg Overstreet, who said the House will probably not concur with the changes.

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, sponsored the House version of the bill. Her office said she had not seen the amendments and could not comment on them.

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