The misguided legislature continues to tear away from the Public Documents Act

“The people of this state do not cede their sovereignty to the services that serve them. The people, by delegating powers, do not give their civil servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. People insist on staying informed so they can maintain control over the tools they’ve created.”

— Preamble to the Law on State Government Documents

Who is whispering to your legislators via email, letter or text? We have a right to know who is trying to influence lawmakers.

In 1972, the people, fed up with the legislative frauds, organized and carried out an initiative to open the curtain on what their representatives were secretly doing. Initiative 276 created the Public Records Act (PRA), designed to illuminate state and local government.

The Washington State Legislature has spent the past half-century relaxing the PRA, carving out some 600 exemptions from the statute until it resembles a wall of bubblegum at Pike Place Market.

Most of all, the legislature insists on exempting itself from the state documents law. Her efforts to do so are generating a surprising degree of bipartisan cooperation.

Back in the days off I-276, cases of booze were delivered to the office of a high-ranking legislator. No payment. No questions asked. A gift from a lobbyist.

There were other goodies, as former Associated Press reporter David Ammons recalls. Fishing trips to distant resorts. Free travel to the East Coast to meet high-ranking corporate officials who want special treatment.

The meetings will be held behind closed doors. Records are hidden or not saved at all.

Ammons arrived in Olympia in 1971 as a young kid, just a year after graduating from the University of Washington. He was surprised by the behavior he saw.

“I was something holier than thou,” he said. “Booze was hauled in the elevator to the managers’ offices.”

And sexual harassment of women was endemic, he said.

Then came Watergate. From Washington, D.C., to statehouses, people’s faith in government has been shaken. I-276 was born out of growing public revulsion.

Open government will finally be written into law. The late Michael Hildt, a young director of the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WashCOG), introduced I-276. The late U.S. Rep. Jolene Ansoeld, a proponent of open government, championed the initiative as a state legislator.

The law was seen as a tool to force more openness not only in the state legislature, but also in local governments.

Despite attempts by bipartisan legislatures to derail the initiative by putting two competing, albeit weaker, measures on the 1972 ballot, I-276 won with more than 70% of the vote—a landslide.

It didn’t take long for disclosure-averse lawmakers to attack what they saw as an invasion of their prerogatives.

WashCOG, in a letter to the Legislature in January 1973, condemned attempts by opponents of I-276 to denigrate the measure.

“Opponents of Initiative 276 now claim that, although it had good intentions, it was ill-conceived and poorly drafted,” the letter says. “This is a familiar tactic traditionally used to rationalize amendments to a popular initiative.”

The Solar Committee, created by statute in 2007, has tried, but without success, to offer proposals to revise many of the PRA exemptions enacted by the Legislature. One member, attorney Kathy George, has already resigned.

The committee is not respected by lawmakers, and the rest of the committee is wondering if there is a purpose to continue.

Lawmakers regularly argue that the PRA does not apply to itself. A lawsuit by the Associated Press and other media companies disputed that claim.

Michelle Earle-Hubbard was the lead attorney in that lawsuit, which led to a 7-2 state Supreme Court ruling in 2019 telling the Legislature that it was indeed bound by the Public Records Act.

Ever persistent, lawmakers have now come up with a fancy new way to avoid the PRA: They call it “legislative privilege.”

Earle-Hubbard, Washington state’s top media law attorney, scoffs at the Legislature’s latest attempt to evade the PRA.

“Legislators argue that this privilege is based on provisions in the state and federal constitutions that prevent lawmakers from being arrested and prosecuted for what they say in the legislature,” Earle-Hubbard said. “It does not apply to records and does not exempt records. This is a fictional, non-existent, unauthorized ‘privilege’ that lawmakers are trying to give themselves.”

In addition, bill introduced this year in both houses — HB 1597 and companion SB 5571 — would create even greater barriers to access to public records. Such attempts to further erode the PRA must be stopped immediately.

It’s time for a new citizens’ initiative to fix what the Legislature keeps breaking.

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