Wednesday, February 28, 2018
SUNSHINE STORM: Newspapers around the state dedicated their front pages this week to an editorial appeal to Governor Jay Inslee to veto Senate Bill 6617, an ill-advised attempt by state legislators to shield themselves from public disclosure requests under Washington’s Public Records Act.
Lawmakers passed the bill late last week, only 48 hours after releasing the proposal, and without holding any public hearing or floor debate. The bill sped through the Senate, 41-7, and the House, 83-14.
The measure comes as lawmakers are scrambling in the midst of an appeal of the ruling of a superior court judge who in January sided with media groups, led by the Associated Press, who argued lawmakers had been illegally withholding documents like daily calendars, emails and text messages. The bill would officially remove the legislative branch from the state’s Public Records Act, but, starting on July 1, it would allow release of some correspondence, “specified information” from lawmaker calendars, and final disciplinary reports.
Weighing in on the case in superior court, the state Attorney General wrote that state lawmakers are subject to the same rules of disclosure that cover other elected officials and employees at state agencies.
The Legislature decided to forego using the attorney general’s office and instead hired two outside law firms to defend their position in court, spending more than $100,000 through the end of December. They did not prevail.
It’s rare that a bill moves this quickly and with such overwhelming bipartisan support, but SB6617 passed within minutes, as the vast majority of lawmakers voted to hide their records from the public.
Taken as a whole, the measure seems to be an effort by lawmakers to shield themselves, at least temporarily (and in an election year), from requests for documentation of sexual harassment and workplace assaults—an issue prominently in the news.
More than 170 prominent women in Washington signed a letter in November calling for a shift in workplace culture at the state Legislature to end inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment.
“Our political world is one of explicit and implicit power differentials,” the women asserted in their letter. “We have no clear hierarchy like a more traditional workplace. We have no safe, neutral place to report our experiences. And there are currently few possibilities for meaningful consequences for inappropriate behavior. For some of us, speaking out about harassment means choosing between our personal safety and our professional futures or policy successes. We know that countless times, women have calculated the risk, remembered what happened to other women who spoke up and seen the lack of meaningful pathways for change. And too often, the safe choice has been to ‘deal with’ these situations ourselves.”
The meaningful pathway, of course, includes efforts to shine sunlight on these actions through the state’s public disclosure law, an instrument created by state voters to help hold their government and its representatives accountable.
Curiously, a number of the women who signed that letter are legislators who now voted in support of SB6617. These include Rep. Kris Lytton, a Democrat from the 40th District. Her colleague in the Senate, Kevin Ranker, was a rare vote opposed to SB6617.
“I know that there has been concerns around the process this bill took, and that is a fair complaint,” Lytton said in a statement, “but I can assure you that this was due to the result of the court order coming out during the middle of the legislative session with little time left. At that point, the only process left had to happen quickly in order to protect certain aspects of privacy.” She noted there were concerns among lawmakers for the protection of constituent privacy, the flow of ideas during the legislative process, and preventing politically motivated fishing expeditions.
And, yes, all Republican representatives in the 42nd Legislative District voted to shield themselves.
“In this #MeToo era, where victims of sexual harassment at the state Capitol have had to seek justice through the news media, the Legislature closing off records of how past cases might have been mishandled is a particular abomination,” the Seattle Times editorial board stormed in a front page opinion—the first to appear on that newspaper’s front page in 110 years.
The papers’ unusual move puts pressure on the governor to veto the bill and send it back to the Legislature for another vote.
“The Washington state legislature should not be allowed to get away with its sneak attack on transparency and accountability,” David Boardman, chair of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, noted. “By passing a bill that purported to improve public accountability but that actually constrains it, and by doing so under the guise of an ‘emergency,’ lawmakers have done a shameful disservice to the citizens of their state.”
While there’s easily enough votes to override a governor’s veto, the override would be a surprisingly brazen step for a legislature that appears to be trying to duck bad publicity and a rising public resentment and reckoning.
President of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, Toby Nixon, called passage of the bill “incontrovertible evidence of the utter contempt legislators of both parties have for public participation in the legislative process.”
Nixon pointed to an escalation in improper procedure and affronts to due process in the Legislature in recent years, including closed hearings and last minute substitutions of bills.
“They’ve shown such contempt in many ways over the years through such things as introducing title-only bills,” Nixon said, “holding hearings on bills the same day they’re introduced, voting on massive bills and striking amendments such as the budget within hours of the text becoming available before legislators themselves have an opportunity to read it much less the public, cancelling hearings on short notice after people have traveled across the state to attend, etc. But the idea that a major bill with such huge policy implications is introduced and then on the governor’s desk for signature within 48 hours is just ridiculous.
“Voters should never forget this abuse.”