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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Legislators continue to miss the point of public records and transparency

UPDATED: Thu., Aug. 23, 2018

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Forget Matt Shea.

When it comes to the Washington Legislature, and what we can expect in terms of its willingness to abide by the Public Records Act, it won’t be Shea’s whackjobbery that makes the biggest difference.

It will be the other seven lawmakers digging into the issue on an 15-member task force – all of whom voted for last year’s heinie-cloaking travesty.

And it will be the other legislators in Democratic-majority Olympia, almost all of whom also supported that terrible, self-serving attempt to exempt themselves from the law, and many of whom spent a lot of time telling whoppers to the public about it.

Do they get it? We shouldn’t hold our breath. Lawmakers have given every indication since last year’s flameout that they see last year’s rushed-up, secretive process – not the substance of their secrecy – as the problem.

So the most important question now, in terms of the public policy that will eventually emerge, is not whether Shea was a ridiculously bad choice to represent House Republicans on the committee working on public records legislation.

He was. His hostility to the press is unmatched among Washington politicians, and the latest example of him going full Alex Jones – calling journalists “dirty, godless, hateful people” – and the idea that he was picked to serve on the task force belies any lip service the House GOP leadership might pay to public accountability.

On the question of public accountability, Shea is the noise. The signal is the failure of public responsibility on the part of lawmakers who voted last year to exempt themselves from the Public Records Act, and the likelihood of a repeat performance.

The Legislature has long operated with far less public accountability in terms of records than any other elected officials in the state.

In 2017, The Associated Press and other news organizations requested a range of records from lawmakers that would be covered for other elected officials, such as calendars, emails and past complaints about sexual harassment. Such documents would be considered public records and disclosable for any small-town mayor or county commissioner in the state – but lawmakers argued that they were special and exempt. Eventually, a judge rejected this argument and ordered the Legislature to abide by the “plain and unambiguous language of the law.”

What happened next was truly egregious: As sneakily as possible, legislation was drafted and crammed through the sausage grinder to make some lawmakers’ records public, but protecting many others.

Lawmakers proceeded to brag about how transparent they were being. Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat who never, so far as I know, calls journalists smelly heathens, touted this very bad legislation as “the biggest step forward for transparency in the history of the Legislature.”

Which is a special kind of nonsense. Lawmakers repeatedly exaggerated how much of a burden adhering to the law would be for them – repeating the claim that they would each need a public records officer to meet all the demand, when it’s clear that lawmakers could share a joint system that would be far less onerous.

They trotted out misleading claims about the judge’s ruling. They played media victim, and pretended to be defenders of constituents’ privacy against the snooping hordes – when protecting individual privacy is a routine, established part of the public records process at all levels of government.

The bad-faith arguments were simply incredible.

When the state’s media organizations rose up in opposition, and thousands of citizens complained, the governor vetoed the bill.

Since then, though, most legislators have acted like the real problem was the process. The secrecy. The rush job. The failure to engage a public debate.

That was a problem, surely. But the substance of the legislation was, too. And there seems to be little indication that lawmakers recognize that.

The legislators picked for the task force selected to come up with legislation this year all voted for last year’s sham: Sens. Curtis King, R-Yakima; Randi Becker, R-Enumclaw; Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim; and Sam Hunt, D-Olympia; and Reps. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland; Joan McBride, D-Kirkland; Mike Volz, R-Spokane; and Shea.

The early money here is on more foot-dragging and butt-covering. If that’s what happens, it won’t be Matt Shea’s fault.

It will be the fault of all the other temperate souls in Olympia who don’t go around calling reporters filthy animals.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Aug. 23, 2018 to correct the number of people who serve on the task force. Besides lawmakers, the 15-member task force includes three representatives of the news media, an open records advocate and members of the public. The story also was changed to correct the news organizations that originally requested the records from lawmakers in 2017.

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