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Opinion: Governor Jay Inslee must stand up for the people and veto legislative-secrecy bill

 

The seattle times, february 26, 2018

By The Seattle Times editorial board

 

Gov. Jay Inslee must veto a bill that would allow Washington lawmakers to conceal more of their working documents than almost every other government official in the state.

Washington state lawmakers have committed an egregious breach of the public trust. It now falls to Gov. Jay Inslee to correct the wrong born from their hubris.

The governor must veto Senate Bill 6617, a brazen attempt by lawmakers to exempt themselves from the state’s Public Records Act. These elected officials are evading the ruling of a judge and contradicting Attorney General Bob Ferguson, both of whom said legislators are subject to the law.

SB 6617 attempts to shut down a lawsuit brought by 10 news-media organizations, including The Associated Press and The Seattle Times. The bill tries to permanently ban access to lawmakers’ past emails, text messages and calendars, as well as past disciplinary proceedings and complaints about lawmakers’ conduct.

In this #MeToo era, where victims of sexual harassment at the state Capitol have had to seek justice through the news media, the Legislature closing off records of how past cases might have been mishandled is a particular abomination.

Yet in a stunning show of arrogance Friday, a majority of legislators made it clear they think no one has the right to scrutinize their past work on the public’s dime — not even the voters who elected them.

With dizzying speed and no public debate, state lawmakers passed the bill sealing off thousands of records that could inform voters how well their elected leaders are representing them. The entire process took about 48 hours — alarmingly fast for Washington’s frequently plodding Legislature — and came one month after Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled legislators broke the law by not releasing public documents associated with their work.

Going forward, the bill allows lawmakers to conceal more records than almost every other government official in the state, while eliminating the option to appeal to a judge to decide if the Legislature has wrongly withheld documents.

Now, in a perverse twisting of reality, these same state lawmakers are proudly telling constituents they just made state government more transparent, not less. This shockingly dishonest spin ignores the court ruling that found lawmakers have been illegally withholding documents for years, a clear violation of the citizens’ right to know what their elected officials are doing.

It is shameful that lawmakers swiftly passed this legislation rolling back government accountability measures that voters approved in 1972.

Their approach is anathema to Gov. Inslee’s long-standing sensibility and commitment to open government. He has been one of the most transparent executives in recent memory, eschewing the practice of invoking executive privilege to withhold certain records. He has rightfully vetoed legislation he thought would rupture the state’s open-government laws. He has chided lawmakers for their secrecy and told them they can function effectively while following the same transparency standards as his office and other government agencies.

Now is the time for Inslee to show he is not just talk. He must take a stand and veto SB 6617.
Inslee must act as the voice of the people, especially after the Legislature purposefully squelched opportunities for public comment by rushing through this bill. The disingenuous attachment of an emergency clause to the measure eliminates voters’ ability to launch a referendum effort of their own.

The governor must not be deterred simply because the bill passed with large enough majorities in both chambers to override his veto. He must force lawmakers to once again answer to their constituents. And, this time, he must urge those so-called public servants to actually listen.

If lawmakers choose to break the public’s trust yet again by overcoming an Inslee veto, voters will be left to conclude only one thing: These elected representatives must have something to hide.

Citizens should also stand up for themselves by calling their local lawmakers, urging them to accept the governor’s veto and reject SB 6617 should it come back up for a vote.

This disgraceful effort by the Legislature is an affront to one of the basic tenets of our democracy: That elected lawmakers work for the people.

They should not have the privilege of operating in the shadows.