In a brazen attempt to suppress public access to existing records of legislators’ activities, the Washington state Senate and House overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 6617 on Friday, February 23, hardly two days after it had been introduced. The Senate passed the measure 41 to 7 after no debate, with Kevin Ranker voting “nay” and Doug Ericksen voting in favor of it. The House then quickly passed the bill 83 to 14, with Representatives Vincent Buys, Kristine Lytton, Jeff Morris and Luanne Van Werven all voting in favor.
The aptly named “Engrossed Senate Bill 6617” now sits on Governor Inslee’s desk, awaiting his signature (or veto), with seemingly veto-proof majorities in both House and Senate.
What was truly amazing—and extremely disturbing — about this process was its breakneck speed. A draft bill was introduced on Wednesday, February 21, with only a joint “work session” on Thursday at which just five members of the public were able to speak before the floor votes occurred on Friday. There were no committee hearings at which amendments could be offered and voted upon.
Advocates of open government are appalled. “I think that both the process and the bill itself are abominations,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. “The process demonstrates the utter contempt that legislators hold for public participation in the legislative process.”
It also raises the obvious question, “What are they hiding?” What skeletons are lurking in our lawmakers’ closets that they need to suppress all prior records? At least we can thank Senator Ranker for standing up for openness in government. But we should hold Senator Ericksen and Representatives Buys, Lytton, Morris and Van Werven accountable for why they instead favor legislative secrecy.
For readers unfamiliar with the ways of Olympia, last year the Associated Press, Washington Newspaper Publishers Association (which includes the Seattle Times), and other news organizations sued the state Legislature after it had denied requests for documentation of sexual harassment and workplace assaults, which have been prominent in the news of late. The Attorney General’s Office even filed a brief in the case supporting the plaintiffs’ position.
On January 19, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled in their favor that the Legislature is indeed subject to the state’s open record laws—as are local governments and state agencies. As he stated in his decision, “The plain and unambiguous language of the Public Records Act applies to the offices of senators and representatives.”
But lawyers for the Legislature promptly appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson and Minority Leader Mark Schoesler set about to overturn the ruling by introducing SB 6617, which in addition proscribes any further legal challenges or judicial review. That provision alone raises important Constitutional issues about separation of powers.
We need to ask our legislators why they support blatant secrecy over open government—especially Kristine Lytton, who signed a November 2017 letter with 170 other women condemning rampant sexual harassment in Olympia. One of the reasons it has flourished there, as the Seattle Times has revealed in a series of recent articles by Joseph O’ Sullivan, is the fact that records of such transgressions are hidden from public scrutiny.
The 1999 experiences of open-government advocate Elisabeth Britt, a Northwest Citizen contributor, featured in his January 31 article, “#MeToo in Legislature: Harassment complaint process is not reflecting women’s experiences in Olympia,” underscore what can happen when these records of lawmaker activity are suppressed. She had to leave a legislative staff position that she loved and turn her back on Olympia because of alleged sexual harassment by Representative Jim Dunn, which is only now coming to light. Making these legislative records public, as SB 6617 may do after July 1, 2018, should help to alleviate such flagrant problems by causing potential abusers to think twice.
But what about all the records of what transpired before that date? Do we turn our backs and just ignore what has been happening for more than two decades—ever since the Legislature first voted in 1995 to exempt itself from the Public Recrods Act?
To repeat yet again, “What are they hiding?”