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What Are Our Lawmakers Hiding?

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?”

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About Michael Riordan

Writer • Eastsound, WA • Member since Nov 25, 2016

Michael Riordan writes about science, technology and public policy from Orcas Island, where he lives and kayaks. He holds a PhD degree in physics from MIT, having worked on the [...]

Comments by Readers

Tim Paxton

Feb 26, 2018

Nice review of this legislation.  The Leg is not only covering up for their support of abusing female employees and likely lobbyists and local bar maids for decades, but also their policy of actively destroying any and all evidence.    It has a deliberate system to protect these practices.  It is perhaps more disgusting that the female legislators, including many from Whatcom County, apparently turn a blind eye to abuse of females by our Legislators.   Not one peep or outrage from them about how NWCitizen writer Elisabeth Britt was treated.   So, it is their policy too.

Another incident that this legislation covers up is the infamous Olympia O.K. Boys Ranch scandal which has cost taxpayers $50 million +  and featured the leaders of Olympia society.  Likely including many State officials from Olympia. 

Additionally, the Washington Superior Courts, a private corporation, has in recent years declared itself to be an “agency” that is largely immune or exempt to any public disclosure request.  Imagine the scandals they are hiding themselves.

Congrats to Kevin Ranker for opposing.  Now it would be nice if he showed some leadership to expose what goes on

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Tip Johnson

Feb 26, 2018

Can’t even hold my nose tight enough for this one.  Certainly hope Inslee makes them override a veto.

After that, it would be very nice to know who dreamed up and drafted this “abomination”.

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Sam Crawford

Feb 26, 2018

I assert public disclosure laws are ridiculous.

Here’s the thing: I think the open public meetings regulations are absolutely essential. Collusion between any legislative body must not happen, while all debate as well as votes should occur on the record and in the public eye.

To that end as far as public disclosure goes, any information that is shared between elected officials should be public record, for the sole purpose of determining whether there was information to influence bloc voting. However since the beginnings of the first forms of democracy, if there are dishonest politicians, and they don’t communicate in writing (be it electronic or otherwise), there is not going to be a record of those conversations regardless, and no one will be the wiser.

So there’s a big charade put out there in the form of these public disclosure laws. They act as a giant vacuum cleaner to sweep up all correspondence (which these days is virtually 100% electronic). They are costly and time-consuming to government agencies, and they result in, guess what, nothing relevant. Intuitively realizing this, the state legislature passes the laws, and then exempts themselves!

Public records requests and local government responses have become a costly micro-industry within government. But they accomplish nothing. Who cares who is talking to which constituents? Who cares what is said? I don’t. Nobody (generally) is stupid enough to put a bribe, a blackmail threat, or any other act of malfeasance in writing.

The only thing that matters, when the day is over, is how a legislator votes on a given issue.

Public disclosure regulations should be limited to written communications between elected officials, and only those communications that are peer to peer within a legislative body which could affect voting outcomes. And the rules should apply equally at any level of government, and that includes YOU, state legislators!

All the rest is just window dressing to make the public feel like they’re “in the know”. Yet there is little doubt that malfeasance occasionally occurs which these laws will never ferret out. Our public disclosure laws are false security to a skeptical citizenry, and should be abandoned in favor of a simpler and more direct requirement to harness any electronic forms of back-room dealing between legislators.

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Elisabeth Britt

Feb 27, 2018

Public disclosure laws are ridiculous? Fortunately, the courts disagree with Sam Crawford. In City of Fife v. Hicks, 186 Wn. App. 122 (2/24/15). Hicks, a police officer, filed a complaint against other members of the police department alleging certain forms of wrong doing.   An investigation was conducted by an outside consultant who stated the acts were unsustained or unfounded.  Hicks then requested witness statments, audio recordings, etc.. used in the investigation of his complaint.  The city supplied some of the records, but others were denied, arguing that they were not public records or that they were protected under attorney-client privilege. The court was asked to dtermine the extent to which the names and identifying information of interviewes, witnesses, complaintants and the persons accused could be redacted. The court of appeals found that the records at issue constituted specific investigative records because they were “designed to ferret out criminal activity or to shed light on some other allegation of malfeasance.”

Yet, the House and Senate administration brazenly exempts itself from the same laws that other public agencies are required to follow.  In a nutshell, the court found that the city failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to whether nondisclosure of the redacted material was essential to effective law enforcement. And, that it had failed to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to wheter nondisclosure of the accused officers’ identifying information is essential to protect a person’s privacy.  The court determined that the allegations were inherently a matter of greater interest to the public. Hence, disclosure of the idenity of the identities of the accused officers would not offend their right to privacy under the investigative records exemption. 

How does this case relate to the state legislature’s lightning speed effort to claim secrecy priviledges?  Allegations of sexual assault, workplace violence and other forms of assault are crimes.  When lawmakers exempt themselves from the very laws that they have adopted to govern the behavior of all other public agencies - they are  violating not only employee civil rights, but the right of that individual to pursue legal action against a lawmaker who has committed a crime. 

If you believe the legislature should be in the business of obstructing justice by hiding evidence of past and current inappropriate behavior, by all means, support ESB 6617. If you believe in government transparency and a uniform application of state laws to all elected officials and public employees, write Governor Inslee and urge him to veto ESB 6617.  No one, not even a state lawmaker, should be above the law.   

 

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Tim Paxton

Feb 27, 2018

It seems Sam Crawford has selective memory on Public Disclosure. In 2012, the Whatcom  County Council was sued with the help of Greg Overstreet, a Spokane Attorney.

The issue was the ongoing abuse of Public Meeting and Public Disclosure laws by the Whatcom County Council of which Sam Crawford was then a member.  They were caught and found in violation by the State Auditor.  So much for Sam’s claim of Whatcom County Council members not being dumb enough to put violations in writing.  They were running a secret council and figured they were smart enough to get away with it.

In this case, the County  Council were caught using secret, non public emails to decide whether to deny a Lummi Island resident requesting access to even their public records. Their contempt for the law and the public was and is astounding. ( Imagine the level of contempt for the public at the State level!  )

When sued, the County Attorney immediately caved, admitted guilt and tax payers paid the most of the legal bill.  I paid the balance out of pocket.

Not one of the offending, law breaking, County Council offered to pay for the legal fees, if I recall correctly.

If you or I broke the law AND cost your employer thousands of dollars, you would quickly be fired.  Not the  County Council.  The Tax Payers pay the fine and legal costs.

The suit had the enjoyable side effect of not only embarrassing the County Council’s smug members inlcluding Sam Crawford,  in public (again), but put them more deeply in the position of if they were caught doing this again they could all face serious legal and/or financial penalties in person and not just paid by the hapless Whatcom County Tax Payer. 


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Michael Riordan

Feb 28, 2018

As Shakespeare might have put it, “Something is rotten in the state of Washington.”

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