News organizations sue Legislature, alleging failure to comply with Public Records Act

The dome of the state Capitol building. The state Legislature is being sued by news organizations for failing to comply with the state’s Public Records Act. (File photo)

The dome of the state Capitol building. The state Legislature is being sued by news organizations for failing to comply with the state’s Public Records Act. (File photo)

POULSBO — A coalition of news organizations led by The Associated Press, including Sound Publishing, which owns Kitsap News Group, has filed a lawsuit against the state Legislature alleging violations of the state Public Records Act.

In the course of reporting on legislative activity, news organizations had requested lawmakers’ schedules and calendars from Jan. 9 through July 24 and all text messages related to legislative duties during that time.

Elected officials from the 23rd Legislative District all declined to comment. The 23rd Legislative District includes Bainbridge Island, Silverdale, Poulsbo, Kingston and parts of Bremerton.

Linda Owens, legislative aide for Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said, “We have been recommended by the Secretary of the Senate to make no comment at this time.”

Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, “has been strictly told we are not allowed to discuss this due to litigation,” said her legislative aide, Lisa Hardy. Appleton later called Kitsap News Group, the only 23rd District elected official to do so directly.

“I’m sort of standing back and taking stock,” she said. Appleton confirmed that, besides being told not to comment on the lawsuit, legislators had been told not to respond to the request for schedules, calendars and texts.

“The attorneys have told us they will take care of our emails and text messages,” she said.

Jen Weldref, media representative for Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, said Hansen declined comment and referred Kitsap News Group to the Office of the Chief Clerk of the House of Representatives.

There, Chief Clerk Bernard Dean reinforced the legislators’ remarks, saying, “We don’t comment on pending legislation.” When asked if legislators had also been specifically told not to comply with the request for information, he repeated, “We don’t comment on pending legislation.”

Legislators in neighboring districts are staying quiet on the issue as well. In the 24th District, state Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, and Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, are among state lawmakers who did not respond to requests from the news organizations for schedules and calendars.

The 24th Legislative District covers Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.

“Elected officials at all levels of government should be held to the same degree of transparency,” Terry Ward, publisher of Kitsap Daily News and Kitsap News Group, said Sept. 13. “State lawmakers giving themselves a broad exemption and not providing full access to public records does a disservice to the public.”

Kitsap News Group includes Bainbridge Island Review, Central Kitsap Reporter, Kingston Community News, Kitsap Weekly, North Kitsap Herald and Port Orchard Independent, as well as KitsapDailyNews.com and the daily BainbridgeReview.com.

Ward said the public has the right to know what their legislators are doing, which includes access to their calendars and correspondence.

“I’m proud our company is standing up for the citizens of Kitsap County by joining this lawsuit,” he said.

Tharinger agreed the public has a right to know what state lawmakers are doing, but added that he’s not sure showing calendars and text messages improves the public process.

“I’m not opposed to it,” he said. “I’m just not sure there’s a big advantage to it.”

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 12 in Thurston County Superior Court, alleges “hundreds of highly-important records of the Washington Legislature and elected legislators are being withheld from the public, depriving the media and public of information to which it is entitled.”

It challenges lawmakers’ claim that language they added more than two decades ago to Washington’s public records law excludes them from stricter disclosure rules that apply to officials across the state, from school board members and county commissioners to agency heads.

Tharinger said the state Public Records Act can be abused by people who are just “fishing” for information “as opposed to media who have legitimate interest.”

“I don’t have anything to hide,” he said.

Tharinger said the Public Records Act should be “tightened up” and said he wouldn’t be opposed to a third party filtering out frivolous requests.

He referred to Edmonds resident Williams Sheehan’s July 31 public records request for Clallam County pet licensing information as an example of abuse.

The records have been made available to Sheehan, Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict said Sept. 13, adding that Sheehan “has elected to not inspect them until a future date.”

Benedict said other county records, including phone numbers and addresses of law enforcement and prosecuting attorney’s office employees that were requested by Sheehan, are still being redacted.

Chapman told the Peninsula Daily News on Sept. 12 that he believes Legislature-related calendar items and text messages should be made public.

Chapman would not comment on the lawsuit on the advice of House counsel Kathy Maynard, he said.

“If it wasn’t for the lawsuit, I’d walk down there [to the Peninsula Daily News office] and show you my calendar,” Chapman said. “Right now, we have a lawsuit, so I don’t think that can happen anymore.”

He said he also would make public his text messages related to legislative business.

“I communicate with constituents via text message,” Chapman said. “I don’t do policy or bills, that sort of thing. When people call me and text, I usually end up emailing them.”

Chapman said the public should be aware that communication about legislative matters is a public record when they text or email a lawmaker.

Benedict said state lawmakers should fulfill media requests for state lawmakers’ calendar information and text messages.

“I don’t see why lawmakers should get a pass on what we have to put up with to a greater degree,” Benedict said.

Besides AP and Sound Publishing, the groups involved in the lawsuit are public radio’s Northwest News Network, KING-TV, KIRO 7, Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, The Spokesman-Review, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, Tacoma News Inc. and The Seattle Times.

Van De Wege did not return calls for comment Sept. 12 about the lawsuit.

— With reporting by Jesse Major and Paul Gottlieb of the Peninsula Daily News, and Terryl Asla of the Kitsap News Group.

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