Capitol press corps goes on a ‘fishing expedition’

The capitol press corps is going on a collective “fishing expedition.”  That’s the term for when individuals or organizations make a wide request for public information hoping to catch anything in the metaphorical net.

They have submitted a public records request to all legislators that is inclusive of all text messages and calendars since the start of the legislative session.

I’ve copied the correspondence below that went out to all legislators over the weekend.

Pursuant to the Public Records Act, RCW 42.56, I am requesting access to the following records:

— Copies of your calendars/schedules from Jan. 9, 2017 through June 1, 2017.

— Copies of any text messages received or sent by you related to your legislative duties between Jan. 9, 2017 and June 1, 2017.

This request is made on behalf of: The Associated Press, Northwest News Network, The Spokesman-Review, Sound Publishing, The News Tribune and The Seattle Times. They are all cc:d on this request and should be included in your response.

We agree to pay reasonable fees for the processing of this request, but please call me before filling the request if costs will be over $50. We request that the records be provided in electronic format, such as by email or DVD-R.

As provided by the public records law, we will expect your response within five (5) business days. See Wash. Rev. Code Sec. 42.56.520. If the request is denied in whole or part, you must justify and specify all deletions by reference to specific exemptions of the act. See RCW 42.56.210(3).

The Public Records Act contains a broad mandate in favor of disclosure (RCW 42.56.030). As news reporter, I am requesting this information because of the public interest in open government and the administration of your office.

If you have any questions about this request, please call or email me at the contacts below

Rep. Mike Sells said he thought a wide ranging public records request was a poor replacement for on-the-ground reporting of the legislative session.

“After 5 months, the media wants to know what’s on our minds and in our e-mails, texts,  etc. It was tempting to tell them, “I will, if Donald Trump will.” It is public information, but no substitute for good reporting and digging during the session. However, most media outlets have even stopped sending reporters during sessions. The fall back, can I have your e-mails and texts?  Yeah, you can, but where the hell were you during session?”

Text message requests under the Public Records Act can be particularly concerning for elected officials.  Under the law, if a correspondence is communicated in the person’s official capacity, then it is considered a public record.  For example, if a friend texts a legislator that they are looking forward to a social event together, and that also the friend thinks there are some problematic provisions of a bill that the legislator should cut out, then that text message could be considered a public document.  If it is considered a public document, then it is the responsibility of the elected official to retain and disclose the public record.

This is particularly problematic when the message is conveyed on a personal phone or device that might not otherwise be used for official communications.

Lawyers will counsel elected officials to assume everything is open to a public disclosure request, and to keep strong records accordingly.  In practice, it is often very difficult to separate some correspondence that may be deemed personal away from correspondence that may be deemed official.  This creates a potential liability for legislators, and consequently, some level of anxiety.

We’ll see what this request yields in the days ahead.

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