OLYMPIA – A task force created after Washington lawmakers attempted to exempt themselves from the state’s Public Records Act says the Legislature should be more transparent about its workings.
The group, which includes lawmakers and news media representatives, approved several guidelines for how the Legislature should handle the issue of public records at its final meeting Friday.
Members agreed that disputes about whether specific records are public should be handled by an independent body, and that privacy protections already in the Public Records Act should cover communications that people have with lawmakers. But they could not reach consensus about the extent to which documents reflecting lawmakers’ deliberative process should be blocked from disclosure.
News organizations led by the Associated Press sued the Legislature last year for failing to release emails, schedules and reports of sexual harassment.
After a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled that the Public Records Act does apply to lawmakers’ offices, legislators hastily tried to change the law early this year by overriding normal legislative procedures, prompting public outrage and a veto from Gov. Jay Inslee. The judge’s ruling has been appealed, and the case awaits arguments at the state Supreme Court.
The task force comprises eight lawmakers, three media representatives, three members of the public and an open government advocate.
Among the other points on which the group unanimously agreed were that privacy protections for whistleblowers should be extended to any communications they have with lawmakers and that it should be possible to obtain an independent advisory opinion about whether records are releasable.
The most contested point was about whether lawmakers should be subject to the same rules as other policy-making officials in the state, both at the local level and in the executive branch, when it comes to making public documents that reflect deliberative process. Such documents are already largely precluded from release under the Public Records Act, but some lawmakers on the committee, including Republican Sen. Curtis King, suggested additional protections might be necessary.
Lawmakers could face blowback from constituents if constituents were able to see how compromises are reached in Olympia, King said.
That drew argument from media representatives, including Ray Rivera, a deputy managing editor at the Seattle Times. Rivera noted that there appeared to be little harm in televising the “deliberative process” the committee was engaged in at the meeting, and he said existing protections could be tweaked if needed.
But in the end, the task force’s members failed to agree on compromise language that said: “There is a need for protection of the Legislative deliberative process, beginning with the existing deliberative process exemption in the Public Records Act and adding narrowly crafted exemptions as needed.”
Republican Rep. Matt Shea, who referred to the media at a gun rights rally in August as “dirty, godless, hateful people,” did not attend Friday’s meeting.
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