(By Jamie Henneman/Chewelah Independent)
Legislators refuse to share texts, emails, calendars…
A group of nine media outlets is suing every member of the Washington State Legislature on claims that lawmakers are often refusing to release information like personal calendars, texts and emails in violation of the Public Records Act.
In a civil lawsuit filed on Sept. 14 and spearheaded by the Associated Press, the media groups claims that legislators have wrongfully considered themselves exempt from the state’s open-records initiative that was passed in 1976 and amended in 1995. Legislators often respond to requests for certain documents by claiming they are exempt from the public records act, because only a narrow scope of documents that are gathered by either the clerk of the House or the Secretary of the Senate are subject to disclosure.
However, while frequently citing this interpretation of the law, legislators still tried to pass a bill that would formally exempt them from public disclosure laws in both 2003 and 2005.Both efforts failed.
In its lawsuit, the AP noted “legislators taking this position are wrong, and this lawsuit is necessary to establish the legislature did not reverse the will of the people in Initiative I-276 and remove or narrow its reach to the very elected individuals with which that initiative was so deeply concerned.”
The suit offers multiple examples of lawmakers denying press requests for their personal calendars, emails and videos over the last several years, often citing their interpretation of the public-records law to defend the denial.
“The media has been telling the Legislature that they are subject to the Public Records Act, but it seems like it’s time they heard it from someone else. So the goal of this lawsuit is to have the court weigh in and make them comply,” said Michele Earl-Hubbard of Allied Law, the attorney representing the nine media outlets in the suit. “This lawsuit can be as fast and as simple as the legislature wants to make it.”
Earl-Hubbard said the issue of legislators dodging public-records requests was recently highlighted when the press tried to gain access to legislative information regarding the controversial McCleary court decision. The Washington State Supreme Court ruled against legislature in 2012’s McCleary v. State by finding the Legislature was not fully funding public education.
The Supreme Court also assessed fines against the state until lawmakers passed a budget with sufficient education funding. As legislators tried to address this issue during the 2017 legislative session, reporters wanted to know who skipped a vote, who may have been talking to lobbyists about the issue and other questions. When those public-records queries were ignored, it underscored the problem, Earl-Hubbard said.
“We also had another situation where a member of the Senate accepted a temporary position with the Trump administration and was splitting his time between Washington D.C. and Olympia, but was not releasing his calendar,” Earl-Hubbard noted.
Shortly after President Donald Trump took office, state Sen. Doug Erickson accepted a temporary position with the administration. When the AP requested Erickson’s calendar for the first two months of the legislative session, state Senate lawyers denied the request by citing the state law and noting that the calendar did not fall under the definition of a “public record.”
Earl-Hubbard said the plaintiffs hope the lawsuit will clarify for legislators that the public-records law does apply to them and will help address problems in the future. Along with the AP, plaintiffs in the case include the Seattle Times, Northwest News Network, the Spokesman-Review, KING-TV, KIRO-7 and the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association.
“The press had tried so many ways to access these records and they kept getting the wall,” Earl-Hubbard said. “This could be a short lawsuit or it could go as far as it needs to in order to address the issue.”
The media outlets also want the court to impose a penalty, up to $100 per page per day, on public-records requests that have been denied.
Seventh District Senator Shelly Short and Rep. Jacqueline Maycumber declined to comment, saying they are unable to comment on pending litigation. Rep. Joel Kretz did not respond to a request for comment.