Lawmakers go into damage control with backlash over public records bill

OLYMPIA — Following last week’s rapid-fire vote on a bill to exempt the Legislature from state public records laws, lawmakers are going into damage control with public backlash mounting.

Public outcry over the bill was immediate. As results of the vote in the Legislature became known, messages from around the state began landing on the desks of legislators in Olympia from citizens protesting the bill’s passage. As of Feb. 28, thousands had called in or sent emails to register their concerns.

On Feb. 27, 13 daily newspapers across Washington state published front-page editorials condemning the bill, and the Seattle Times reported that over the weekend, Gov. Jay Inslee had received over 500 emails from citizens criticizing the legislation. Just on Feb. 26, his office received 200 phone calls from people opposing the bill, according to the report.

The bill, SB 6617, explicitly exempts lawmakers from the state’s Public Records Act and applies immediately and retroactively — meaning that existing records going back to statehood would be off limits to disclosure requests. The legislation allows disclosure of lawmakers’ calendars and communications with registered lobbyists, but only documents created after July 1, 2018.

Introduced on Feb. 21, the bill was rushed at break-neck speed to a vote in both the state Senate and House on Feb. 23. It passed both chambers in 20 minutes with wide margins and no floor debate.

Since their vote on Friday, legislators who supported the bill began issuing press releases and statements on Facebook and other platforms defending their vote. They are framing the legislation as a win for both constituent privacy and government transparency.

Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who voted for SB 6617, said in a phone interview that he hasn’t received any constituent emails that support the bill.

“In my 18 years in the Legislature, this is by far the fastest I’ve ever seen a bill pass, from beginning to end,” said Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, who was one of the seven state senators to vote against SB 6617. He called the bill’s quick turnaround a “world record in my book.”

The last-minute introduction of the law and the rush to enact it comes after a January ruling by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese, who determined that the state Legislature is subject to public records laws.

The decree was prompted by a lawsuit brought by the Associated Press, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and other regional papers against lawmakers who denied a records request that journalists made last year for lawmakers’ internal communications and information on incidents of sexual harassment.

Lawmakers have appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, where the litigation is ongoing.

In a Feb. 23 statement, Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Kirkland, said the bill balances the privacy of constituents with transparency.

“I am happy that we are moving in the direction of more transparency,” she wrote.

The same day, Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, published a statement on her website in which she slammed media coverage on the issue: “Media reports that claim this is a way of avoiding transparency and bypassing a court decision are incorrect,” she wrote.

Rep. Gael Tarleton, D-Ballard, argued in a Feb. 25 blog post that while the process by which the bill passed was “flawed,” she thought it was necessary to counteract Judge Lanese’s January ruling. She wrote that the ruling would impose “obscene” financial costs on legislators to administer records requests and “paralyze the ability of legislators to properly represent their constituents.”

Additionally, several House members circulated a defense of the bill authored by Pedersen, with largely word-for-word similarity. Pedersen said that he had shared his message — which was originally published in The Stand — with the Senate Democrats communications staff, who then passed it to House Democrats’ staffers, who distributed it among their members. In the essay, Pedersen said the bill has been “widely misunderstood.”

“There’s no real attempt to have any balance in the reporting,” Pedersen said of media coverage in a phone interview. He also characterized the numerous newspaper editorials as an “unprecedented use of resources by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to try and stir up opposition to the bill.”

State legislators from Kitsap County mostly voted in favor of the legislation. In the 23rd Legislative District, state Sen. Christine Rolfes and state Reps. Sherry Appleton and Drew Hansen, all Democrats, voted for the bill.

In the 26th Legislative District, state Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, also voted yes. That district’s two state representatives, Michelle Caldier and Jesse Young, voted against the bill.

In an email to her district constituents, Angel said that she supported the legislation because it provided transparency “with a reasonable process.”

“I value the confidentiality of my constituents when I am helping them on very personal issues,” Angel said, “and I will not disclose their names or information to the public.”

Angel said she believes her district residents would prefer that she spend her time seeing constituents, attending meetings and working on relevant issues rather than devoting “at least 30 hours each week to inspecting records.”

Messages were left Feb. 22 seeking comments from the 23rd District’s legislators. Rolfes, the district’s state senator, 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.

“SB 6617 makes communication between legislators and lobbyists subject to the public records act, and I agree that they should be,” Rolfes said.

The press and open government advocates were quick to fact-check the messaging from lawmakers. Seattle Times Editorial Board member Melissa Santos argued on Twitter on Feb. 26 that health information and many personal details are already exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act, contrasting with claims from lawmakers that SB 6617 is needed to protect constituent privacy.

Sean Robinson, a reporter for the Tacoma News Tribune, slammed legislators’ characterizations of both the bill and media coverage of it on Twitter: “The media covered it truthfully. You guys ran a deceitful, abusive process that prevented scrutiny, cut out public hearings and denied your own members the chance to speak in dissent. Own it and be honest,” he wrote on Feb. 24.

“For the most part, what we’re hearing the legislators saying is not true,” said Michele Earl-Hubbard, the attorney representing the media organizations in the lawsuit.

In response to criticisms of the bill’s rushed passage, Pedersen claimed in his essay that the bill needed to be pushed through at the end of the legislative session because Judge Lanese’s ruling came in late January and he “refused” to suspend his order until the case had gone through the appeals process. “If the ruling had come in October, we could have done this differently,” he wrote.

Earl-Hubbard countered that lawmakers never requested a stay from Judge Lanese. “It’s not true that they asked him to stay his order and he turned them down. They never asked him,” she said.

Following the January ruling, attorneys representing the legislators filed for a stay with the state Supreme Court, but the court has yet to rule on the request, according to Earl-Hubbard. Sen. Miloscia said that the bill was rushed to passage within three days due to its strong support among lawmakers and the likelihood that it would garner public opposition.

“When there is complete and utter agreement among a vast number of legislators on a bill that people will get upset over, those bills go extremely fast, as fast you can make it, and that’s exactly what happened,” he said.

Miloscia said that the bill “basically says that the politicians decide what the people have the right to know,” and that legislators “knew exactly what they were voting for.”

The bill sat before Gov. Jay Inslee, who could choose to sign the bill, let it pass without his signature or veto it. He had until Thursday, March 1 (after press deadline), to make a decision.

During a Feb. 27 appearance on MSNBC, Inslee said that, while he thinks the bill is a “bad idea,” he can’t veto the legislation because lawmakers passed the bill with a “veto-proof majority.” He added that he doesn’t “have control over” over the legislation.

When asked if the governor would veto the legislation, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee merely wrote in an email that their office is “reviewing it.”

Bob Smith and Richard Walker of Kitsap News Group contributed to this report.