by Michael Riordan
Special to the Sounder
In a brazen attempt to suppress public access to any existing records of legislators’ activities, the Washington state Senate and House overwhelmingly passed Senate Bill 6617 on Fevb. 23, hardly two days after it had been introduced. The Senate passed the measure 41 to 7 after no debate, with Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, voting “nay.” The House then passed it 83 to 14, with both Kristine Lytton and Jeff Morris voting in favor. The bill now sits on Governor Inslee’s desk, awaiting his signature, with seemingly veto-proof majorities in both House and Senate.
What was truly amazing — and extremely troubling — about this process was its breakneck speed. A draft bill was introduced on Wednesday, February 21, with only a joint “work session” on Thursday at which just five members of the public were able to speak before the floor votes occurred on Friday. There were no committee hearings at which amendments could be offered and voted upon.
Advocates of open government are appalled. “I think that both the process and the bill itself are abominations,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. “The process demonstrates the utter contempt that legislators hold for public participation in the legislative process.”
It also raises the obvious question, “What are they hiding?” What skeletons are lurking in our lawmakers’ closets that they need to suppress all prior records? At least we can thank Senator Ranker for standing up for openness in government. But we should grill Representatives Lytton and Morris about why they instead favor legislative secrecy.
For readers unfamiliar with the ways of Olympia, last year the Associated Press, Washington Newspaper Publishers Association (which includes the Seattle Times), and other news organizations sued the state Legislature after it had denied requests for documentation of sexual harassment and workplace assaults, which have been featured in the news of late. The Attorney General’s Office even filed a brief in the case supporting the plaintiffs’ position.
And on January 19, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled that the Legislature is indeed subject to the state’s open record laws — as are local governments and state agencies. As he stated in his decision, “The plain and unambiguous language of the Public Records Act applies to the offices of senators and representatives.”
But lawyers for the Legislature promptly appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson and Minority Leader Mark Schoesler set about to overturn the ruling by introducing SB 6617, which in addition proscribes any further legal challenges or judicial review.
We should ask our two representatives why they support secrecy over open government — especially Kristine Lytton, who signed a November 2017 letter with 170 other women condemning rampant sexual harassment in Olympia. One of the reasons this practice has flourished there, as the Seattle Times has revealed in a series of recent articles by Joseph O’ Sullivan, is the fact that records of such transgressions are hidden from public scrutiny.
To repeat yet again, “What are they hiding?”