Public records bill should be vetoed

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For the sake of public transparency and openness, we ask that Gov. Jay Inslee veto Senate Bill 6617 that exempts certain lawmaker records from public disclosure.

The bill was approved quickly this week without debate on the floors of the state Senate and House of Representatives. The bill passed with votes of 41-7 in the Senate and 83-14 in the House. Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, was the only lawmaker on the east side of the state who voted against the bill.

A denied records request of sexual harassment complaints against elected officials triggered a media lawsuit filed by the Associated Press and other media groups last year against the state Legislature. Newspapers throughout the state published editorials on the front pages of their papers asking that Inslee veto the bill.

To its credit, SB 6617 does make correspondence with lobbyists and lawmakers’ calendars public.

According to SB 6617, the following types of records are exempt from disclosure:

• Records that would violate an individual’s right to privacy;

• Financial information such as credit or debit card numbers, check numbers, and Social Security numbers;

• Personally identifying information in personnel or employment records;

• Records prepared to prevent, mitigate, or respond to terrorist acts;

• Information regarding computer and telecommunication network infrastructure and security;

• Records relevant to a controversy to which a state entity is a party which would not be subject to pretrial discovery; and

• Records subject to the speech and debate clause of the state Constitution, including preliminary drafts, records pertaining to the deliberative process and records in which policies are formulated.

We can see why there would be hesitation to release sensitive records. However, the Legislature has operated differently from other state agencies when handling public records requests across the board. More than two decades ago, language legislators added to the law excluded them from stricter disclosure rules followed by other state agencies, according to a September 2017 article from the Associated Press.

In 1971, the legislature passed a law defining legislative records as “correspondence, amendments, reports, and minutes of meetings made by or submitted to legislative committees or subcommittees and transcripts or other records of hearings or supplementary written testimony or data thereof filed with committees or subcommittees in connection with the exercise of legislative or investigatory functions, but does not include the records of an official act of the legislature kept by the secretary of state, bills and their copies, published materials, digests, or multicopied matter which are routinely retained and otherwise available at the state library or in a public repository, or reports or correspondence made or received by or in any way under the personal control of the individual member of the legislature.”

The Herald and other members of the newspaper industry in the state are concerned because of the lack of debate and public hearings on the bill. While we respect the sensitive nature of the legislature’s work, we believe more time should have been spent reviewing and debating the bill. We’re hoping an opportunity to do so will take place in the future and ask Inslee to veto Senate Bill 6617.

— Editorial Board

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