This version adds comment from state Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island
OLYMPIA — The state Public Records Act guarantees public access to all public records — absent an exemption — and includes penalties for public agencies that wrongfully withhold documents from the public.
A state Senate bill would give state legislators that exemption.
Senate Bill 6617 was introduced Feb. 21 by Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, and Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. It was read on the floor of the Senate Feb. 22 and placed on the calendar for a second reading. The next step: a vote by the Senate and, if approved, advancement to the state House of Representatives.
Messages were left Feb. 22 for the 23rd District’s legislators. Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, was in a meeting Feb. 22 of the Senate Ways and Means Committee but emailed this response later.
”My primary concern about open public records has been around protecting constituent privacy, particularly around the case management work that we do,” she wrote. “I’m also concerned that if people know that their viewpoints and home and email addresses are available to anyone who asks for my email records, they may be less likely to communicate openly.
”To specifically answer your question, SB 6617 makes communication between legislators and lobbyists subject to the public records act, and I agree that they should be.
”Senate Bill 6617 exempts correspondence from constituents from the public records act. It also exempts email between legislators and with staff, which is key to maintaining confidentiality in drafting policy. SB 6617 makes all other records subject to the PRA (including emails and texts), like our calendars, communications with lobbyists or anyone who does not work for the legislature, expense reports, and disciplinary matters. All votes, committee records and hearings, etc. are already considered to be part of the public record and continue to be. Under SB 6617, legislators are free to release any additional records as long as they do not violate a constituent’s privacy.
”I have thought for years that the legislature needed to be more transparent, and support this bill as providing greatly improved and practical guidelines.”
The bill states that the Legislature is, like the judiciary, “a branch of government rather than an ‘agency’ of the state” and is “subject to separate disclosure requirements.”
The bill would require the chief clerk and the secretary to make available for public inspection and copying “all legislative public records,” but specifies that the following records would be exempt:
- Personal information on file about legislative employees, appointees, or legislators that “would be highly offensive to a reasonable person and … is not of legitimate concern to the public.”
- Information in personnel records, public employment-related records, and volunteer rosters.
- Certain contact and identification information, such as residential telephone numbers, personal cell phone numbers, personal email addresses, and dates of birth.
- Records that are “relevant to a controversy to which any entity of state government is a party but which records would not be available to another party under court rules for pretrial discovery.”
- Records that are subject to the speech or debate clause of Article II, section 17 of the state Constitution “including, but not limited to, preliminary drafts, notes, recommendations, and internal legislative and interbranch communication in which opinions are expressed or policies formulated or recommended.”
The Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade organization representing community newspapers in Washington state, issued an email to its members Feb. 22 warning that the bill would keep the public from having access to many communications to and from legislators.
“The bill would exempt disclosure of communications with ‘constituents,’ which is anyone who doesn’t register as a lobbyist or employ someone who registers as a lobbyist, a government employee who is paid to be a lobbyist, an organization that does grassroots lobbying requiring registration, and an elected official, or individuals who are acting on behalf of such persons,” WNPA wrote.
“This means that if you don’t register or employ someone who registers as a lobbyist you are a ‘constituent.’”
As written, the bill would allow the House Executive Rules Committee and the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee the review of any dispute over the release of records “and their ruling is final,” WNPA reported. “Should there be a dispute between them, the original ruling is final. No action can be brought against them in any venue of any kind so you cannot sue in any court.”
In addition, “The bill will not be heard in any committee because the rules of the Legislature do not allow a bill that does not affect the budgets to be heard at this late date.”
CARE TO COMMENT?: A list of legislator emails is available at http://app.leg.wa.gov/memberemail/Default.aspx. Residents can call the legislative hotline at 1-800-562-6000. The direct phone numbers for member offices are available at http://app.leg.wa.gov/rosters/Members.