Story by Carol Ladwig
Rep. Paul Graves (R) of Fall City, in his second year as a state legislator, is proposing an end to a form of special treatment for state legislators. In advance of the 2018 legislative session, he is introducing a bill to amend the state’s 40-year-old Public Records Act by removing a 1995 exemption for state legislators.
As the law stands now, all state legislators, as well as the governor and lieutenant governor, can refuse to disclose information requested by the public regarding their schedules, e-mails, and other communications. City and county officials and other public entities are required, by Chapter 42.56 of state law (RCW), to provide anyone who requests publicly available information with that information, within a reasonable timeframe.
There are exceptions to this rule, such as information related to criminal investigations or data that could violate a person’s privacy, but in general, if the public asks for it, the city and county must provide it.
Section 42.56.030 states, in part, “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created…”
However, in 1995, the State Legislature voted to amend the definitions in the code, to exempt all state legislators from the rule.
Graves, speaking at the offices of the Snoqualmie Valley Record earlier this month, admitted that he hadn’t known about the exemption until he began orientation training for new legislators.
“I was kind of flummoxed,” he said. “I just assumed that all of my material would be public record.”
That’s when he first started thinking about introducing a bill to remove the exemption, he said. The idea was helped along this summer when a media coalition formally requested the calendar information and text messages from all legislators, from Jan. 9 to July 24 of this year.
The media coalition included the Associated Press; Northwest News Network; KING 5; KIRO 7; Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington’ the Spokesman Review; Washington Newspaper Publishers Association; Tacoma News, Inc.; the Seattle Times; and Sound Publishing, publisher of Seattle Weekly.
After their request was rejected, the group filed a lawsuit against the legislature in September, calling on the court to order the legislators to provide the requested information and issue an injunction against future refusals of such record requests.
While Graves said he supports the legislature in the lawsuit, he added, “I also think the law should change. … When we got the request and the lawsuit started, I realized this is something that I would love to take on.”
He is calling his proposal the Legislative Transparency Act, and is working to build support among other legislators, including Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-North Seattle) and Sen. Mark Miloscia (R-Federal Way).
“There’s a bipartisan group of people who feel like this is the right thing to do,” Graves said.
He is confident the bill will get a hearing in committee, and hopeful that it will go much further. Arguments to maintain the exemption will be hard to support, he pointed out.
“It seems like it will be hard to have anybody who is vocally opposed to it—it’s a special exemption for us. … I don’t think there is a good faith argument for us to have an exemption that nobody else gets.”
At the same time, he understands there will be opposition.
”It’s a hassle to know that all of your writings are going to be publicly available, but that’s how it is for every other government official in the whole state,” he said.
Graves’ bill designates the secretary of the Senate and the chief clerk of the House of Representatives as the officers responsible for responding to public records requests and coordinating the delivery of information with the specific legislators.
It also allows for all the documentation from the years of the legislative exemption—1995 through July 1, 2018, should the law pass—to be excluded from public disclosure requirements. That’s in fairness to past legislators who worked under the exemption, Graves explained.
Also exempt would be the legislative caucuses, party-based discussions during the sessions aimed at garnering support for bills.
Graves acknowledged that the bill, if passed, could have a negative impact on communications between legislators, reducing straightforward statements and candor. The communications would still happen, though, he said, adding that removing the legislative exemption “is the right thing to do.”
The financial impact of the bill is yet to be determined.
Graves said he is also working on bills to update the state’s cyber-stalking laws, and ways to increase the number of foster parents available to serve the roughly 10,000 children in foster care each night.
The 2018 legislative session starts Jan. 8 in Olympia.