Op-Ed: Let's talk about public disclosure

By State Senator Maralyn Chase

There has been a lot of discussion about public disclosure and government transparency in the local media this year. The state legislature attempted to pass a bill to address this. 

It’s an important and complex topic that I care about a great deal. In fact, I serve on the State Sunshine Committee that is committed to this very issue. Let me share some background on public disclosure with you and about how I support greater transparency in government, but also protections for private citizens.

The Public Disclosure Act (later renamed the Public Records Art) was created in 1972, as a result of the voter-approved Initiative 276, with the purpose of increasing transparency into the work of Washington government agencies and campaign financing. This law meant that certain records by certain public agencies, such as Department of Licensing and Department of Transportation, were subject to public records requests and review by anyone who asked for them. 

The Legislature therefore continued to use its own rules defining what documents were public. The judicial branch also continued to use its own rules. Many exemptions were added to the law over the years.

Fast forward to 2018.

Near the beginning of the 2018 legislative session, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ordered the State Legislature to pass comprehensive legislation on public disclosure, ruling that legislators’ offices are "agencies" (the term used in the original law) and are therefore subject to all aspects of the Public Disclosure Act. This was in response to a lawsuit initiated by various media organizations statewide.

With advice from State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, the Legislature responded to the judge's order. In February, legislative attorneys filed an appeal and wrote a bipartisan bill, S.B. 6617, to clarify how legislative records should be treated. 

Along with 40 of my 48 colleagues in the State Senate, and 83 of the 98 members of the House, I voted for the bill, believing it was a step in the right direction of expanding transparency without risking the privacy of constituents. Feeling pressure to meet the deadline for adjournment and to avoid a special session, the legislature did not schedule sufficient time for public input on the bill. That was a mistake. Consequently, there was vigorous pushback to the bill by the public and news media urging Governor Inslee to veto S.B. 6617, which he did.

Unfortunately, some mischaracterized the bill, claiming that it created more secrecy around legislative records. In fact, it would have created greater transparency by amending the inadequate existing law to require for the first time: 

  • the disclosure of legislative calendars

  • correspondence with lobbyists

  • final reports on misconduct investigations

  • internal accounting and financial records, including personnel leave, travel, and payroll records of legislators and staff

  • codification of the Legislature’s current interpretation of the Public Disclosure Act

  • creation of a new public records office and funding for staff

The bill would have continued to protect certain categories of documents such as constituent correspondence and location of meetings on our calendars. And it would have only applied to records starting from July 1, 2018. 

Some believed the bill did not go far enough. That is worth considering and I am committed to addressing these concerns with greater clarity as we head into the next session.

Legislators receive correspondence from the public who are seeking help about private issues such as health, domestic violence, and legal matters. Many of us, myself included, were very concerned about making such information available to the media or anyone else who makes a public records request. For example, I do not want to release records of people who contacted my office about the price of prescription drugs to a marketing firm. It is especially critical to protect victims and whistleblowers. Our intention was to pass a bill to both expand the amount of information available to the public, while also protecting personal information such as phone numbers, health information, and Social Security numbers of our constituents.

I am committed to government transparency and the need for public media to access vital information to support democratic and transparent processes. We also need to make government transparency compatible with constituent privacy. 

Looking ahead to 2019.

I fully support the latest effort by the legislature to create a 15-Member Legislative Task Force on Public Records, which will examine "establishing standards for maintaining and disclosing public records for the legislative branch of government." The Committee will appoint House and Senate members as well as members representing Washington-based media sources, an open-government source, and members representing the public. It will meet from September to December of 2018. We need to do this right and get it done, in partnership with the public, during the 2019 session. Please visit my website for details about the task force: maralynchase.com

PDF: Legislative Task Force on Public Records

- Shoreline Area News

Seferiana Day