State lawmakers made the right decision this week when they abandoned their latest effort to exempt themselves from parts of the state Public Records Act.
Last February, Washington citizens resoundingly opposed legislators attempting to exempt themselves from the same disclosure rules that apply to the governor, city councils and other public agencies across the state. Public pressure convinced the governor to veto that effort last year.
More transparency, not less, is needed in this time of growing distrust of government and democratic institutions.
This is a fundamental obligation of government entities in Washington, including the Legislature. It is not something that can be negotiated down by revising the law.
This was affirmed a year ago by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese. Ruling for news-media organizations that sued the Legislature for exempting itself from the records act, Lanese said, “The plain and unambiguous language of the Public Records Act applies to the offices of senators and representatives…”
The Legislature appealed to the state Supreme Court, which should not delay in reaching its decision as soon as possible.
Lawmakers’ trying to exempt themselves from the law at this point is like changing the speed limit after they’ve been caught speeding. They should be devoting energy to compliance, not seeking a “compromise” allowing just them to drive 30 mph over the limit in certain situations.
Healthy conversations by legislators before the session raised concerns about privacy and the feasibility of complying with these rules. State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, responded with a bill he hoped would start a conversation revising the law, but it still sought special exemptions for lawmakers. Pedersen and caucus leaders said this week the bill won’t proceed.
Comments by legislators on a records task force last year suggest there are compliance challenges. The Legislature needs to get up to speed with the disclosure rules followed by smaller legislative bodies and public agencies. Also needed are public education and better public-records training for legislators.
The public should know written communications with legislators, including text messages and emails, are almost entirely public records – as at other levels of government. They should be thought of as postcards, not sealed letters.
The records act protects sensitive information. It does not allow disclosure of things like medical records or material that increases the risk of theft, such as Social Security and credit card numbers. These exemptions provide a balance of disclosure and privacy that works for agencies handling even the most sensitive information. It allows for transparency and accountability at social-service agencies and schools dealing with clients or students and prosecutor offices handling sex crimes. If the act protects the privacy of people interacting with those agencies, it works for legislators.
In the same spirit, lawmakers should end their annual effort to obscure dates of birth on public records. Birth dates have long been public information. They’re used to distinguish voters, individuals seeking government favor and public employees, among other things. By themselves they don’t pose a risk of identity theft. Birth dates are already widely available – the cat’s out of the bag – and aren’t a key that enables thieves to steal identity and open fraudulent credit accounts.
Obscuring birth dates, or defining them as risky personal information on par with credit-card numbers as House Bill 1071 would do, only makes public records less useful for holding government accountable. One example is this newspaper’s “Coaches who Prey” reporting on known sex predators allowed to continue coaching, because of terrible oversight by school officials. Birth dates were essential to identifying predators, including some moving from school to school. Public-employee unions sought to block release of those records, invoking privacy concerns.
Legislators made the right decision to stop pursuing exemptions from the Public Records Act. They should wait for the Supreme Court ruling on their case before seeking further changes.