We have been truly appalled by the actions of our state government the past week as well as profoundly grateful to Governor Jay Inslee for trying to right a wrong.
SB 6617, passed by the Legislature on Feb. 23, would exempt state lawmakers from Washington’s Public Records Act while making some legislative records (like calendars and correspondence with lobbyists) disclosable. Introduced on Wednesday, Feb. 21, the bill was rushed at shockingly swift speed to a vote two days later in both the state Senate and House. It passed both chambers (41 to 7 Senate and 83-14 House) in 20 minutes and saw zero public hearings or floor debate. It should be noted that Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, was one of the few senators who voted against the measure.
The bill was in response to a lawsuit filed by a media coalition that included the Associated Press and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association (of which the Sounder and Journal are both members) after lawmakers denied a records request of internal communications regarding incidents of sexual harassment. In that suit, a Thurston County Superior Court Judge ruled in January 2018 that legislators should be required to comply with the state’s Open Public Records Act.
Lawmakers in favor of the SB 6617 called it “a balanced” approach. We call it a terrifying step in the wrong direction. We don’t want to live in a state where elected officials are legally allowed to disregard the public records act. It’s a sad turn of events after the progress of such movements as #metoo.
Public outcry was overwhelming after the bill’s passage. As of March 1, Inslee’s office announced it had received more than 6,300 phone calls and more than 12,500 emails regarding the bill. At least a dozen newspapers, including The Seattle Times, ran front-page editorials calling for the governor to veto SB 6617. The state Sunshine Committee, which makes recommendations to the legislature on changes to the Public Records Act, voted 7-0 to ask Inslee to veto the bill.
On March 1, he did just that. Inslee listened to Washingtonians, who showed their dedication to demanding government transparency. In exchange for a veto from the governor and no override vote from the legislature, the media organizations will join the defendants in seeking a stay on enforcement of the ruling while the matter proceeds in an appeal now before the state Supreme Court.
For now, it looks like we have a happy ending, thanks to a vocal public and a governor with a backbone.