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Shawn Vestal: The Legislature’s terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad public-records bill promotes secrecy, not openness

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 15, 2019

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

Senate Bill 5784 opens with one line of truly noble lip service to the principle of open government: “The legislature finds that democracy functions best when the public knows who influences the government and how government leaders carry out their duties.”

The first “however” comes quickly, though.

By the end of the SB 5784, it’s “howevers” all the way down. This lousy bill gives lawmakers a grant of secrecy in perpetuity – and retroactively – for tons of records that would illuminate how they carry out their duties, and creates a forever zone of secrecy around who is communicating with them.

So I come to rebeat this horse: The members of the Washington Legislature are demonstrating, repeatedly and at great expense, that they simply will not abide by the spirit or the letter of the 47-year-old Public Records Act, which declares the citizens the owners of their government and requires public officials to do their business openly.

Like a gaggle of vampires, lawmakers will not go gently into that good light.

Their idea of open government? Share their documents with the public once they have been argued over, corrected, amended, debated and resolved into a final form – and not before.

Which is not just a weak attempt to comply with the PRA. It’s an affront to the principle behind the law – an affront to the very first sentence of SB 5784. The Public Records Act does not exist to enforce public accessibility for polished, finalized bills and policy proposals, but to ensure that the public can see what came before – who said what, who influenced lawmakers, how the proposals changed in negotiations, who traded which horse for what pony.

The fact that lawmakers are so determined to hide this stuff from their constituents is in itself a strong argument that they shouldn’t be allowed to.

At this late stage, having suffered a spanking in court and a spanking in the court of public opinion, one wonders how in the world lawmakers still have such a poor understanding of this.

Are they just not trying?

Maybe they’re just not trying.

SB 5784 was proposed by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat, and several others, including Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane. It had its first hearing this week, where it took a drubbing from the usual suspects: press representatives.

But while press organizations have fought this issue in court, at the Capitol and on their front pages, it’s not just a conflict between the media and Legislature. It’s a fundamental question of whether the people have true access to understanding how their representatives operate on their behalf, or whether those representatives can decide what and how much their constituents get to know about what they’re doing.

Lawmakers suggest SB 5784 reflects an attempt to listen to criticisms of their attempt last year to exempt themselves from the PRA. But it’s bad legislation in many of the same ways. The most significant part of this bad-faith proposal is the many exceptions that lawmakers want to grant themselves.

SB 5784 would make the identities of anyone who communicates with a lawmaker secret forever, with the exception of lobbyists. Obviously, some such communications that are sensitive or private for various reasons might well require protection.

But guess what? As lawmakers have been told repeatedly, such protections for whistleblowers and victims of crime and other circumstances already exist for such communications – city councils, county commissions, police departments, fire departments, all the government entities that comply with the PRA have operated for decades by applying such exemptions, when called for, to the release of public records.

Meanwhile, other communications that lawmakers have with the public about matters in the public interest, and which might bear on their lawmaking, should be public. As the first sentence of this terrible bill says.

Another exception is much worse. It would essentially cloak the legislative process that precedes final legislation in eternal secrecy. The list of documents to be exempted forever is shamefully long: draft versions of bills or even amendments; legal and fiscal analyses prepared by staff; proposals, offers, counteroffers and other records of negotiations among legislators; caucus communications; notes taken by lawmakers or staffers; and investigative records produced before a final determination regarding a complaint.

This is a secrecy bill, plain and simple, and it operates in the same mulish spirit that has defined the Legislature’s resistance to public oversight for decades.

It makes all the pretty lip service that opens SB 5784 seem a lot like a lie.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Feb. 15, 2019 to correct the spelling of state Sen. Jamie Pedersen.

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