The Legislative Task Force on Public Records held its first meeting on Wednesday in Olympia. The meeting was the first of potentially four meetings scheduled to take place before the 2019 legislative session in which the task force is charged with the exploration of “establishing standards for maintaining and disclosing public records for the legislative branch of government.”
The 15-member task force includes four House members, four Senate members, three representatives from Washington media, one member from an open government organization, and three members of the public.
The task force was created in response to lawmakers’ attempts to rush through a bill (SB 6617) during the 2018 session that would remove the legislature from the scope of the Public Records Act. Within 48 hours, the bill was introduced, voted out of committee, and passed in both the House and Senate. Governor Inslee ultimately vetoed the bill following public outcry from citizens and media outlets.
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The focus of Wednesday’s meeting was to hear from experts on federal and state constitutional issues related to “legislative privilege”, public records requests in the Judicial branch, and to learn about public records laws in other states.
Following the presentations, moderators from the William D. Ruckelshaus Center led the task force in a facilitated discussion. From that discussion, key themes and concerns emerged in regards to public records requests of the legislature.
A common sentiment shared by several of the task force members was the need to protect citizens’ and whistleblowers’ privacy. Senator Randi Becker described how she gets emails from her constituents that are extremely private and contain information such as phone numbers and home addresses. She worries about being required to turn over that kind of information if it is requested. Though there is an expansive list of exemptions to the Public Records Act already on the books, Becker and Representative Matt Shea noted the need for more clarity on certain legislative exemptions.
Another repeated concern during the discussion was the administrative workload required to fulfill public records requests in the legislature. Legislators remarked on the number of hours it takes and the significant costs involved in responding to the large volume of requests the legislature receives.
Co-chair of the task force Representative Larry Springer suggested reaching out to local governments, specifically the Kirkland City Council, who are subject to greater disclosure than the legislature to learn about how they handle the requests.
Toby Nixon, President of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, also brought up concerns related to the dispute resolution process. If a request for a public record is denied, Nixon asked the task force to consider how the dispute would be handled. SB 6617 would have prohibited judicial review, and the denial of records would have instead been reviewed by a committee in the legislature. This type of review where the legislature can “police itself” was one the key points of outcry from the media and the public when the bill passed.
The discussion did not result in any consensus, but did outline some of the key issues the task force will address in upcoming meetings.
According to the task force’s workplan documents, future meetings will focus on the media’s perspective, the value of open government, principles supporting certain exemptions from public disclosure in the legislature, the administrative side of public records laws, as well as adopting a report on activities and any findings to deliver to the legislature ahead of the 2019 session.