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Bill to remove the Legislature from Public Records Act quickly runs into opposition

On Thursday afternoon, the House and Senate State Government, Tribal Relations & Elections committees came together for a joint work session on SB 6617, a bill set to remove the Legislature from the scope of the Public Records Act (PRA).

SB 6617, which is jointly sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson and Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, would remove the Legislature from the requirements put in place by the PRA. Instead, it would create a different set of rules governing which records the legislature must disclose and which records they would be exempt from disclosing.

This bill comes in the midst of an ongoing court case in which members of the media sued the Legislature, challenging their claim that they are not required to comply with Washington’s public records law. On January 19, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled in favor of the media groups — the Legislature then quickly moved to appeal the ruling.

During the work session, public testimony was heard from publishers and concerned citizens who voiced their opposition to the bill. Many of those testifying took issue with the accelerated timeline of this bill. The bill was introduced on Tuesday, had its work session on Wednesday, and is already scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor on Friday. It did not get voted on in committee and did not have a public hearing.

“This is a singular day. I would never have expected this to happen,” said Roland Thompson, of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington. “It’s breathtaking to have a bill show up this late in session on this most important issue… It is very difficult to read through this bill and to feel comfortable with it.”

Thompson said that if the public had more than 24 hours notice of the bill’s work session, there would likely be 20 publishers in the room speaking in opposition to the bill.

Another chief concern for those testifying was the lack of judicial review for citizens whose records requests are denied. According to the bill, the Secretary of the Senate and the Chief Clerk of the House would be responsible for processing requests. If denied, the requester could seek review from the Executive Rules Committee or the Facilities & Operations Committee. If denied again, the decision would be final and would not be up for review in any other venue.

“It will be the only place in the statute where a citizen is told they cannot have redress through the court. There’s no check and balance here. The person you are making the request of can tell you no, and they can tell you no again. And that is very wrong,” said Rowland.

“When there’s no redress in the courts, that seems to be a vast overreach that you should be concerned about,” added David Zeeck, publisher of the News Tribune, the Olympian, and the Bellingham Herald.

The bill also contains an emergency clause, meaning it would take effect immediately. If passed, the bill would also act retroactively and govern any records requests that are currently being processed.

“What emergency? Slow down. Bring this before the Legislature next year. If you want to enact to make the Legislature separate and somehow different, lets do it when the public has a chance to weigh in on this, to think about it, and you have a chance to think about it. This is not an emergency,” said Zeeck.

Gordon Padget, a concerned citizen from Vancouver, drove up to Olympia this morning after reading about this work session online. He testified that from an “average citizen’s” perspective, this bill brings up feelings of distrust in the Legislature.

“It makes the government appear less transparent. Everything about the way this bill is being handled makes the average citizen leery of the legislation; leery of everyone in the legislature because of the way it’s being done.”

“You don’t shove through something this important, in that short of time frame with no public hearing, no committee meetings on it, and no proper follow through that the Legislature is trusted to do.”

The bill is already set to be heard on the Senate floor. We will continue to watch this bill as it moves forward.

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