Upcoming Conference | 2019 Re-Wire Policy Conference, Dec 10, 2019 Register

Public Records Task Force wraps up recommendations for final report

The Legislative Task Force on Public Records held its final of four meetings today and reached agreement — mostly — on a list of recommendations to include in its final report to the Legislature ahead of the 2019 session.

The 15-member task force includes two members from each caucus of the Legislature, three representatives from Washington media organizations, three members of the public, and the president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. It was created earlier this year, after the Legislature rushed SB 6617 — which would’ve removed the Legislature from the scope of the Public Records Act (PRA) — through the House and the Senate. The move triggered an intense public reaction, and Governor Inslee ultimately vetoed the bill.

Today’s meeting was a culmination of three prior meetings, during which members heard presentations on, and had moderated discussions around, a variety of topics related to public records. An overview of those meetings is available in the task force’s draft report, and videos of the meetings are publicly available via TVW.

Ultimately, the task force will answer its call to “examine establishing standards for maintaining and disclosing public records for the legislative branch of government” with a list of recommendations for the Legislature that received consensus among members. Today, they came to a consensus that each member “could live with” eight recommendations:

  • “The Legislature should strive for greater transparency.”
  • “There is a need to protect the right of privacy of individuals in their communications with legislators, beginning with existing exemptions of the Public Records Act and adding narrowly crafted exemptions as needed.”
  • “The House and Senate should respond to record requests via a single office in each chamber, e.g. the Chief Clerk of the House and Secretary of the Senate.”
  • “Establish an efficient, independent mechanism for handling disputes.”
  • “It should be possible to get an independent advisory opinion as to whether a record is disclosable.”
  • “Consider establishing a definition for a harassing request.”
  • “Whistleblower protections should be extended to any communication with legislators.”
  • “The Legislature should continue to actively engage with stakeholders throughout the development of any legislation to implement these recommendations.”

The task force had “a consensus on not reaching consensus” on an additional recommendation regarding protection for the Legislature’s deliberative process. The group decided the issue should now appear as a separate paragraph in the draft report:

“The task force considered at length the need for protection of the legislative deliberative process, but did not reach consensus within the time allowed. The two statements under consideration during the final meeting were:

A. There is a need for protection of the legislative deliberative process.

B. There is a need for protection of the legislative deliberative process, beginning with the existing deliberative process exemption in the Public Records Act and adding narrowly crafted exemptions as needed.”

Ray Rivera, Deputy Managing Editor for Investigations and Enterprise at The Seattle Times, requested the inclusion of the extra wording in version B of the statement, which suggests the Legislature start with protections that already exist. Task force member Toby Nixon, who’s the president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, explained that the Legislature is currently “explicitly exempt” from the Open Public Meetings Act; only written records of its deliberative process — emails, for example — could become public.

“We’re in a deliberative process right now,” Rivera said. “It is honorable and it is on television … Why can’t the rest of the process be fully transparent, at least as it is defined now within the existing PRA law?”

Legislators generally disagreed with Rivera, arguing for version A of the statement, which is broader and simply stresses the importance of protecting the Legislature’s deliberative process.

“If we have to publish everything that’s said in negotiations and all of that, it is very detrimental,” Sen. Curtis King said. “But I also believe that the Legislature has the constitutional privilege of the deliberative process. And I’m not willing to give that up yet.”

Two task members, Rep. Matt Shea and Sen. Sam Hunt, were not present at the meeting and still need to sign off on the list of recommendations before the consensus is considered final. Task force members are also able to express their individual thoughts on the recommendations via page-long letters to be added as “communiqués” or “addenda” to the final report. Those statements are due by next Friday, December 14.