Op-Ed: Let's talk about public disclosure

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

State Senator Maralyn Chase, D-32
By State Senator Maralyn Chase

There has been a lot of discussion about public disclosure and government transparency in the local media this year. The state legislature attempted to pass a bill to address this.

It’s an important and complex topic that I care about a great deal. In fact, I serve on the State Sunshine Committee that is committed to this very issue. Let me share some background on public disclosure with you and about how I support greater transparency in government, but also protections for private citizens.

The Public Disclosure Act (later renamed the Public Records Art) was created in 1972, as a result of the voter-approved Initiative 276, with the purpose of increasing transparency into the work of Washington government agencies and campaign financing. This law meant that certain records by certain public agencies, such as Department of Licensing and Department of Transportation, were subject to public records requests and review by anyone who asked for them.

The Legislature therefore continued to use its own rules defining what documents were public. The judicial branch also continued to use its own rules. Many exemptions were added to the law over the years.

Fast forward to 2018.

Near the beginning of the 2018 legislative session, January 19th, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ordered the State Legislature to pass comprehensive legislation on public disclosure, ruling that legislators’ offices are "agencies" (the term used in the original law) and are therefore subject to all aspects of the Public Disclosure Act. This was in response to a lawsuit initiated by various media organizations statewide.

With advice from State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the Legislature responded to the judge's order. In February, legislative attorneys filed an appeal and wrote a bipartisan bill, S.B. 6617, to clarify how legislative records should be treated.

Along with 40 of my 48 colleagues in the State Senate, and 83 of the 98 members of the House, I voted for the bill, believing it was a step in the right direction of expanding transparency without risking the privacy of constituents. Feeling pressure to meet the deadline for adjournment and to avoid a special session, the legislature did not schedule sufficient time for public input on the bill. That was a mistake. Consequently, there was vigorous pushback to the bill by the public and news media urging Governor Inslee to veto S.B. 6617, which he did.

Unfortunately, some mischaracterized the bill, claiming that it created more secrecy around legislative records. In fact, it would have created greater transparency by amending the inadequate existing law to require for the first time:
  • the disclosure of legislative calendars 
  • correspondence with lobbyists
  • final reports on misconduct investigations 
  • internal accounting and financial records, including personnel leave, travel, and payroll records of legislators and staff 
  • codification of the Legislature’s current interpretation of the Public Disclosure Act
  • creation of a new public records office and funding for staff

The bill would have continued to protect certain categories of documents such as constituent correspondence and location of meetings on our calendars. And it would have only applied to records starting from July 1, 2018.

Some believed the bill did not go far enough. That is worth considering and I am committed to addressing these concerns with greater clarity as we head into the next session.

Legislators receive correspondence from the public who are seeking help about private issues such as health, domestic violence, and legal matters. Many of us, myself included, were very concerned about making such information available to the media or anyone else who makes a public records request. For example, I do not want to release records of people who contacted my office about the price of prescription drugs to a marketing firm. It is especially critical to protect victims and whistleblowers. Our intention was to pass a bill to both expand the amount of information available to the public, while also protecting personal information such as phone numbers, health information, and Social Security numbers of our constituents.

I am committed to government transparency and the need for public media to access vital information to support democratic and transparent processes. We also need to make government transparency compatible with constituent privacy.

Looking ahead to 2019.

I fully support the latest effort by the legislature to create a 15-Member Legislative Task Force on Public Records, which will examine "establishing standards for maintaining and disclosing public records for the legislative branch of government." The Committee will appoint House and Senate members as well as members representing Washington-based media sources, an open-government source, and members representing the public. It will meet from September to December of 2018. We need to do this right and get it done, in partnership with the public, during the 2019 session. Please visit my website for details about the task force: maralynchase.com

Updated by author 8-3-2018

9 comments:

Dean Fournier,  August 2, 2018 at 4:56 PM  

Thank you, Senator, for your lucid (and thorough) explanation of S.B. 6617. It should be read by all who've expressed concern about disclosure by our Legislative branch.

Keith Smith,  August 2, 2018 at 9:30 PM  

You were ordered to pass legislation? That's completely false. This mess is a creation of the legislature, and the "fix" was created by the legislature. Show me anywhere in the judge's ruling where it says that you had to force something through that took less time than determining what the state's official clam should be.

Anonymous,  August 3, 2018 at 8:32 AM  

fact check on this column by an AP reporter is here: https://twitter.com/RachelAPOly/status/1025395749830385664

Anonymous,  August 3, 2018 at 10:15 AM  

That may be what Senator Chase wants people to think, but it's much simpler.
1. Legislators were withholding records requested by the press.
2. The press sued.
3. The court found that legislators were violating the law by not providing records.
4. The legislature tried to reverse the court decision by changing the law so that they would not have to provide the records. They did it at the last minute with no public hearing.
5. They got caught.

Anonymous,  August 3, 2018 at 1:53 PM  

I find it absurd that self-proclaimed "feminist" Jesse Salomon is trying to take Maralyn Chase's position. She's a trailblazer with a proven track record. Jesse Salomon rezoned our hoods and handmaidens for developers.

Toby Nixon August 4, 2018 at 7:23 AM  

Well, this is certainly a dog's breakfast of obfuscation and misinformation. For something more truthful and transparent, read https://www.seattletimes.com/opinion/a-wake-up-call-to-preserve-the-open-records-act/.

Thos August 4, 2018 at 11:33 AM  

AnonymousAugust 3, 2018 at 10:15 AM: 2. The court found that legislators were violating the law...

Perhaps one should ask why the court found that. That answer would unfortunately be inconvenient to some folks. The law applied to agencies. People should remember from eighth grade civics class that the government consists of three branches: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. An agency is by definition an agent for some other entity. In the case of state agencies, the agencies are agents of the government. The government is not and cannot be an agent of the government. The ruling that a law that applies to agencies also applies to the legislature is just incorrect.

The court gave the legislature an unseasonable amount of time to react to having the rules for agencies applied to it. One might question that action as well as finding that the legislature is an agency of the government.

The rush on the part of the legislature: There was no process in place to comply with the law that applied to agencies; the legislature had to create it. There was no funding in place to comply with the process that applied to agencies; the legislature had to create it. Agencies do not receive personal communications of constituents as agencies do. The legislature had to protect citizens' personal information from those wanting to sift through the records looking for dirt on somebody/anybody. The goal of anyone proclaiming otherwise should be considered suspect.

Thos August 4, 2018 at 11:56 AM  

Keith SmithAugust 2, 2018 at 9:30 PM: You were ordered to pass legislation? That's completely false.

Actually, your claim is generally false. It wasn't a direct order. The order came in the form of consequences for not passing legislation rather than a direct order to pass legislation. The legislature was given an unreasonable requirement in an unreasonable judgement that applied to the legislature a law that applies to agencies. They had until the end of the session to do something about that unreasonable judgement. There wasn't time to carry it though the legal process before the consequences of the judgement would occur. When someone drills a hole in the bottom of the boat, the hole must be patched with any available means, even if it is not the correct way to patch a hole in a boat. The pertinent question is about why someone would drill a hole in the bottom of the boat.

Perhaps some folks feel that the ability to troll through constituent correspondence searching for dirt is acceptable. Folks who think about the potential damage that could have been done by that judgement do not agree with criticism of the legislature over their action. The judge, on the other hand....

Anonymous,  August 10, 2018 at 11:38 AM  

The legislature should be equally concerned that voters know the true cost of what they're voting for as well. Let's ban the deliberately-opaque "cents per $100" or "$ per $1,000 assessed valuation" and such in favor of a high, low, and average number that expresses: "If this measure passes, the cost per year in sales taxes is estimated to range from..." and "If this measure passes, the cost per year in additional property taxes is estimated to range from..." In addition, requiring regular, independent, comprehensive operational audits to assure voters that their tax dollars are being wisely spent.

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