The Gristle

Sunshine Storm

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.”

Past Columns
A Deeper Dive

August 15, 2018

Blue Wave Stalls Offshore

August 8, 2018

Mountains of Our Efforts

August 1, 2018

Vote

July 25, 2018

Trust Is Reciprocal

July 18, 2018

Pressure in the Bottle

July 11, 2018

Sharing the Pain

July 4, 2018

A Supreme Shifting

June 27, 2018

The Costs of Failure

June 6, 2018

Thumb on the Scales

May 30, 2018

Bungle in the Jungle?

May 23, 2018

Heating Up

May 16, 2018

Home Run

May 9, 2018

State of the County

May 2, 2018

Symptoms of Pain

April 25, 2018

A Last Ditch Effort

April 18, 2018

Much ADUs About Nothing

April 11, 2018

The Sin of Sinclair

April 4, 2018

Events
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Group Run

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Brewers Cruise

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Vaudevillingham

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Northwest Washington Fair

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Skagit Tours

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Boating Center Open

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10:00am|Highway 20

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Bow Farmers Market

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5:00pm|Hotel Bellwether

Jazz Jam

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Food Preservation Workshop

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Fairhaven Wine Walk

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Elizabeth Park Summer Concert Series

6:00pm|Elizabeth Park

Riverwalk Concert Series

6:00pm|Riverwalk Plaza.

Pub Run

6:00pm|BBay Running

Bellingham Go Club

6:00pm|Community Food Co-op

Ales & Sails

6:00pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Balkan Folk Dancers

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Choice

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Summer of Blood Finales

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Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood

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Hound of the Baskervilles

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Friday
Northwest Washington Fair

9:00am|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Literacy Council Seeks Volunteers

8:00am

Boating Center Open

10:00am|Community Boating Center

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Bard on the Beach

12:00pm|Vanier Park

Summer of Blood Finales

7:00pm|Rexville Grange Amphitheater

Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood

7:30pm|Maritime Heritage Park

Hound of the Baskervilles

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Wild Things

9:30am|Lake Padden Park

Skagit Tours

10:00am|Highway 20

Summer's End Music & Art Gathering

12:00pm|Zuanich Point Park

Drive for the Arts

1:00pm|Swinomish Golf Links

Books and Bites

1:00pm|Blaine Library

Roadeo

1:00pm|Blaine Library

Food Not Bombs

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Wheelchair Gangball

5:00pm|Bloedel Donovan

Beachside Barbecue

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Beachside Barbecue

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Beachside Barbecue

5:30pm|Semiahmoo Resort

Family Story Night

6:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Commercial Street Night Market

6:00pm|Commercial Street

Salmon Dinner Sail

6:00pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Anacortes Summer Concert Series

6:00pm|Seafarers' Memorial Park

Farm Tunes

6:00pm|BelleWood Acres

Sin & Gin Tours

7:00pm|Downtown Bellingham, historic Fairhaven

Whiskey Fever

7:00pm|Eagle Haven Winery

Hot August Nights

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Hotbox

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Push it to the Limit

9:00pm|Upfront Theatre

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