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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control: Fate of Sunshine Committee getting cloudy

Lights come on in the domed Legislative Building on the Washington Capitol Campus as evening approaches in Olympia.  (Jim Camden/For The Spokesman-Review / For The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Camden For The Spokesman-Review

While Western Washington is well-known for its lack of sunny days – a valid description for November through March, but generally a bad rap in the summer – the entire state could soon lose a key source of sunshine.

It could lose the Sunshine Committee, the more common title of the Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee. As the more formal name suggests, this appointed state body takes a look at information the government collects but the public doesn’t get to see.

Washington has a law, passed by the voters in 1972, that information collected and kept by public agencies at public expense should be available to the public unless the Legislature passes a law exempting all or part of that record. For example, a government employee’s salary is a public record, although that employee’s Social Security Number, which is part of that overall payroll record, is exempt from disclosure.

The Sunshine Committee includes legislators, attorneys, journalists and members of the public who meet every few months to wade through the mountain of exemptions the Legislature has approved over the decades. The committee tries to determine whether the need for certain exemptions still exists, and if not whether the Legislature should repeal, amend or expand them.

After study and careful consideration, it sends a yearly report on recommendations to the Legislature.

The Legislature, in turn, usually does little or nothing with those recommendations. Lawmakers, it seems, do not have “Sunshine of Your Love” on their play list.

This has become a source of frustration for Sunshine Committee members, as was made clear at last week’s quarterly meeting.

Members considered some long-standing exemptions, like the places where police and fire officials have records that explosives are stored. Definitely information that could fall into the wrong hands, the committee decided. Keep it.

Or like not revealing the books a patron checks out from a public library. Permissible if police have a court order for a criminal investigation, but not if one person just wants to see what another person is reading. Keep that exemption, too, the committee said.

Longer than the discussion of exemptions was the discussion of whether any of the committee’s work makes any difference. It has no budget and no staff, relying on the Attorney General’s office for legal advice and on different agencies to supply information upon request.

When the committee was created in 2007, it was designed as “an altruistic approach to looking at hundreds of exemptions,” some dating to the 1930s, which may have become outdated, Rep. Larry Springer, a long-time member, said. Over the years it has slogged through some “very mind-numbing exemption language” and discovered in most cases they are there for a reason, he said.

The committee spends time on some exemptions that don’t affect many people and the Legislature doesn’t care much about, Springer said

“The exemptions from the Public Records Act that really matter, that people have concerns about, will find their way to the Legislature with or without the Sunshine Committee,” he said.

Former Rep. Lynn Kessler, who sponsored the legislation that created the committee and served on it for many years, has suggested it be dissolved, Chairwoman Linda Krese said.

Krese’s term will expire in August, she said, and she’s been told she won’t be reappointed, so the committee also needs a new leader. No one jumped at the chance to volunteer.

Instead, someone made a motion to dissolve the committee, which was quickly seconded.

Spokane Rep. Jenny Graham, a recent committee member, said the Legislature has been wrestling with tough issues in recent years, like COVID-19, police pursuit and rewriting the drug possession laws. With those out of the way, things could improve, she suggested.

But this isn’t just a problem from the past few years, Krese said. “This has been true all along.”

That track record even brings into question whether the Legislature would follow a committee recommendation to dissolve, Krese said.

KXLY News Director Melissa Luck, the newest committee member, said she agreed there’s a question about why put in all the work if it doesn’t go anywhere. But if members recommend the committee be dissolved, they should make it clear they aren’t saying the work is unimportant, she said.

“I think the committee is saying the government doesn’t think this is important,” Luck said.

Jennifer Steele, an assistant attorney general and committee member, said there’s a problem with putting in the work to make recommendations and having the Legislature not do anything. Perhaps the Legislature could give some direction what exemptions they want reviewed or the committee could ask them to at least hold hearings on its recommendations.

Maybe the committee should first ask the Legislature for a budget that would provide for a staff that could do research, Graham said: “If you have a committee like this, you want it to function well.”

There may be a question about how well the Legislature wants the committee to function. But there seems little doubt that it can’t dissolve itself.

“We can’t go away on our own,” Springer said. “The Legislature has to make that happen.”

Eventually, the committee dropped, for the time being, any motion to dissolve. But that may not matter in the long run.

Sen. Jeff Wilson, a committee member, said he has told staff to draft a bill repealing the statute that created the committee, which would automatically wipe it out. That bill can’t be introduced until January, so even if it passes the Sunshine Committee will exist at least on paper until mid-2024, when bills from that session take effect.

By then, however, it may have no leadership, no agenda, and possibly even no chance of a quorum as members quit out of frustration and new appointees become hard to find.

If lawmakers are truly interested in this type of Sunshine, however, they could consider an alternative. Instead of eliminating the committee, they could provide it with a staff for research and legal assistance, a yearly resolution asking for review of specific exemptions, and a guarantee that bills based on recommendations from the panel will be considered in a House or Senate committee.