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Final report from public records task force reflects members’ resilient divides

During its final of four meetings, the Legislative Task Force on Public Records agreed on eight recommendations all members of the task force “could live with.” Ongoing discussion beyond those eight points, though, led the task force to allow members to submit page-long statements for inclusion in its final report.

Six of the 15 task force members took the opportunity: Three lawmakers, two representatives of the public, and the representative from “an open government organization.” No statements from members representing media sources or lawmakers representing the Democratic caucuses were included in the report.

All the letters feature at least part of a sentence expressing appreciation for the task force’s work or some of the conversation; read as a group, though, they point to persistent divisions within the task force.

Letters from lawmakers emphasize a need to protect the Legislature. Reps. Shea and Volz’s short joint statement states support for transparency, while expressing appreciation for the “thoughtful recognition” that exemptions for legislative records “may need to be different, or apply in a different way” than they do for other branches of government.

Meanwhile, Sen. Becker devoted most of her page-long statement to an argument for legislative privilege.

In its final meeting, the task force didn’t reach consensus on a ninth recommendation that would’ve read “there is a need for protection of the legislative deliberative process.” Legislators wanted to add that language as-is, while others on the task force advocated for the addition of the phrase “beginning with the existing deliberative process exemption in the Public Records Act and adding narrowly crafted exemptions as needed.”

In her statement, Becker attributes the group’s inability to reach consensus on that recommendation to “a fundamental misunderstanding of the legislative privilege established in the state constitution by the speech or debate clause.”

Also reflecting that divide, David Ammons, Vice Chair of the Public Disclosure Commission, emphasized in his statement that the Legislature should agree to “adhere to the voter-approved expectation that our lawmakers will follow the PRA, with any additional carve-outs that are deemed indispensable, beyond the 500 exemptions already enacted.”

“Disclosure and open records, as ordained by the public nearly 50 years ago, are part of the solution and the healing,” Ammons concludes. “I commend this report as a starting point for your consideration.”

Candice Bock, Government Relations Director for the Association of Washington Cities (AWC), expressed a similar viewpoint.

“AWC supports one version of the PRA as the best way to serve our shared Constituents,” Bock wrote. “We believe that they deserve the same access to all levels of government. We are also concerned that different rules will create confusion and mistrust.”

Toby Nixon, President of the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG), wrote of an overall disappointment in the work done by the task force.

“We hoped that we would be able to roll up our sleeves and work together side-by-side with legislators to identify how to bring the legislature fully under the Public Records Act and craft specific exemptions to protect the public interest,” Nixon wrote. “We are disappointed that the outcome of the process is limited to just a few vague, broad, high-level statements of principles that should have been obvious to all from the start. It is good that one of those statements urges the legislature to continue to engage with stakeholders while actual bill language is developed.”