AP Photo/Rachel La Corte

AP Photo/Rachel La Corte

Governor vetoes bill that would exempt lawmakers from Open Records Act

OLYMPIA – The governor on Thursday vetoed a controversial public records bill hastily passed by the state Legislature on Feb. 23 that circumvented a court ruling that found lawmakers are fully subject to the state’s voter-approved Public Records Act.

Inslee received a request Thursday evening from a number of legislators to veto the bill after they reached an agreement with media organizations about a process for working together on the issue, with Democrats from the House and Senate saying they made a mistake.

The governor had until midnight to take one of four actions available to him: sign the measure, veto it, a partial veto, or take no action, in which case it would become law immediately.

Plaintiffs from the media lawsuit have agreed to join defendants in seeking a stay of proceedings in the trial court during the appeal, and further agree they will not try to enforce the trial court’s order during the appeal.

In a 9 p.m. statement issued by Inslee he said, “The public’s right to government information is one we hold dearly in Washington. Transparency is a cornerstone of a democratic government, and I’m very proud of my administration’s record on public disclosure.

“I believe legislators will find they can fulfill their duties while being fully transparent, just like state and local governments all across Washington,” Inslee said.

The bill sought to retroactively specify that the Public Records Act – the law of the land since 1972 – does not apply to the legislature, arguing that they – like the judiciary – are a branch of government, not an “agency” of the state, and therefore should be exempt.

Inslee’s office said it was inundated with more than 6,300 phone calls and 12,500 emails and letters by Thursday regarding the bill, with a wide majority asking for his veto.

Reaction to the bill had lawmakers going into damage control with the growing public outrage.

Senate Bill 6617 expressly exempted lawmakers from the state’s Public Records Act, and applied immediately and retroactively – meaning that existing records going backwards would be off limits to disclosure requests.

The legislation allowed disclosure of lawmakers’ calendars and communications with registered lobbyists, but only for documents created after July 1, 2018.

Introduced on Feb. 21, the bill was fast-tracked to a vote two days later in both the Senate and House on Feb. 23. It passed both chambers in 20 minutes – 41-7 in the Senate, and 83-14 in the House moment later, with no floor debate.

Some lawmakers were in damage control mode this week. Since the vote, legislators who supported the bill began issuing press releases and statements on Facebook and other platforms defending their vote, while blaming media spin for skewing the actual intent of the bill.

The Marysville Globe and The Arlington Times last week contacted 12 lawmakers in the 10th, 38th, 39th and 44th legislative districts who serve all or parts of the newspapers’ readership area, seeking comments after the Feb. 23 vote.

Here is how they voted:

District 10

Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor Yes

Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton Excused (due to death in family)

Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island Yes

District 38

Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip Yes

Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett Yes

Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett Yes

District 39

Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro-Woolley No Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish Yes Rep. Carolyn Eslick, R-Sultan Yes

District 44

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lk. Stevens Yes Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek Yes Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek No

Four responded in time for publication. While most were disappointed with the breakneck pace of the bill’s passage, they believed the results were a win for constituent privacy on sensitive issues and for public transparency.

“I am very dismayed at how fast this bill moved through the process,” said Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett. “It is vital that we allow public comment and input on bills moving through the legislature, and that didn’t happen.”

Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, was one of seven state senators to vote against SB 6617.

“As a City Councilmember I operated under the public records act and agree with transparent government,” he said. “I don’t think House Bill 6617 gave the appropriate level of transparency, which is why I voted ‘No.’”.

Sen. Keith Wagoner, the former mayor of Sedro-Woolley who was recently appointed to fill the Republican Senate seat of Kirk Pearson, opposed the bill. He told The Anacortes American that “the Legislature should be held to the same disclosure standards that he was in local government.

“Setting a separate standard for the Legislature because it is ‘too onerous for us’ while local governments are subject to the full force of the (Public Records Act) is self-serving,” Wagoner said in an email Tuesday. “I cannot think of a good argument why, as a senator, there should be a different standard.”

Rep. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, supported the bill because from his perspective, it would make more information available to the public.

“It’s a myth that the legislation that passed the House and Senate exempts the legislature from releasing public records – it actually expands what the legislature releases to the public,” Lovick said.

For the first time, he said, lawmakers in both chambers, from both parties, will release their legislative calendars and communication from and to lobbyists. “That’s a large step forward.”

“The House and Senate now need to put this into effect – hiring public records officers, retaining these records and releasing them to the press and public,” he said, prior to the veto.

The 11th-hour introduction of the law and rush to enact it comes after a January ruling by Judge Chris Lanese in Thurston County Superior Court, who determined that the Legislature is subject to public records laws.

The decision was prompted by a lawsuit brought by the Associated Press, Sound Publishing – owner of The Herald, Globe and Times, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, Northwest News Network, KING-TV, KIRO 7, Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, The Spokesman-Review, Tacoma News Inc. and The Seattle Times. The suit took lawmakers to task for denying a records request that reporters made last year for lawmakers’ internal communications and information on sexual harassment incidents.

Public outcry over the bill was immediate. On Feb. 27, 13 daily newspaper across Washington state – including The Herald – ran front-page editorials condemning the bill.

Open government advocates countered that the governor can veto the legislation, reminding that he has overridden super-majority legislation on dozens of occasions. Last year, for example, he vetoed a B&O manufacturing tax cut that was part of a budget deal saying it was adopted in a non-transparent way.

The Washington Coalition for Open Government strongly opposed the legislation.

“The passage of ESB 6617 is incontrovertible evidence of the utter contempt legislators of both parties have for public participation in the legislative process,” stated WCOG president Toby Nixon, a former state legislator and current Kirkland city councilmember.

“They’ve shown such contempt in many ways over the years through such things as introducing title-only bills, 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.

“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,” Nixon said. “Voters should never forget this abuse.”

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