Public records bill vetoed by Governor Jay Inslee

Jay Inslee recently vetoed bi-partisan Bill 6617, which attempted to make Washington state’s legislature exempt from the voter-approved Public Records Act which passed senate approval with an 83-14 vote. The move would have made certain records public starting in July, however would also shield existing records from the public eye and would have made the legislature their own public information gatekeeper.
Lawmakers attempted to pass the bill at record speed with only 48 hours separating the public announcement of the bill and the vote to pass it. Legislative leaders refused to say who drafted the bill, nor disclose why the bill did not go through the traditional lawmaking process. The Bill also included an “Emergency Clause” which states that the bill would have become active immediately, had Inslee approved the measure.
Toby Nixon, the president of the Washington Coalition of Open Government, called the move “an abomination.” He continued, “The process just demonstrated incontrovertibly the utter contempt that legislators have for public participation in the public process.” Nixon proposed that if voters did not approve of the measures lawmakers were taking, they should look into the possibility of bringing up a ballot initiative.
State lawmakers have long claimed that they are exempt from the open records act, unlike local level government offices who routinely provide records such as work schedules, emails and investigative reports.
However, in January of last year a Thurston county judge ruled that legislative leaders had been guilty of violating the open-records act, which after being appealed is expected to reach the state supreme court sometime this year.
In the meantime, Bill 6617 will be dissected by lower courts who will evaluate the legality and morality of the attempted measures, in relation to transparency and public interaction with government. The bill would have made records such as work schedules, emails and investigative reports from legislator’s public after July 1, however every previous record would be kept private and unable to be challenged in a court of law.
Michele Earl-Hubbard, an attorney for the media coalition opposing Bill 6617, stated, “This is not a transparency bill, this is them choosing to provide a few records if they feel like it, when they feel like it, without enforcement power.”
Very few politicians were open to comment on 6617, however those who did expressed their discomfort for the process in which the state legislature carried out the handling of the bill. Rep. Melanie Stambaugh, called the process “wildly different from other bills where members are freely able to stand and speak,” commenting on the restrictions that legislative leaders put on the vote, preventing debate from happening and denying the opportunity for those who opposed the bill to speak out.
Sen. Reuven Carlyle, approved of Bill 6617, stating that lawmakers are right to impose some restrictions, such as on emails regarding legislation still being drafted. “I would have liked to see an open and robust public dialogue of those legislative efforts,” said Carlyle, who called the bill’s journey into law “outside of [his] comfort zone.”