OLYMPIA – Media organization representatives from across Washington lambasted proposed legislation that exempts the Legislature from portions of the Public Records Act.
As the proposed bill moves through the legislative process, a related court case also moves through the judicial process.
The Senate State Government and Tribal Relations and Elections Committee took public testimony Wednesday on Senate Bill 5784 proposed by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle.
Pedersen was the only person to speak in support of his bill.
A proposed substitute bill discussed at the hearing would exempt the Legislature from disclosing a variety of documents, including records dealing with harassment, sexual assault or misconduct allegations, whistleblower protections, and constituent communications.
Pederson noted that Thurston County Superior Court ruled that the Legislature is only obligated to disclose things that are currently considered public records and final sexual assault investigation reports are not included.
“A year ago, we went through a very painful experience with 6617 that flew through,” Pederson said. “The things that I heard from my constituents told me that we needed to go in a very different direction.”
In 2018, a bill was passed in two days without public testimony after a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled in January 2018 that the Legislature was subject to the Public Records Act and had not been in compliance for years.
The lawmakers and the media outlets that sued them both appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
Rowland Thompson of Allied Daily Newspapers and also representing the Washington State Newspaper Publishers Association testified in opposition to Pedersen’s bill. The WNPA, along with the Associated Press and other news outlets, are plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the lawmakers.
“We would rather lose the case than have this bill,” Thompson said. “If we accept this bill it’s an acquiescence on our part that your positions in the lawsuit are correct because most of them are carried forward in this bill.”
Thompson spoke at length on objections to the proposed bill, saying this changes how the Public Records Act would apply to the legislative body as a whole. The act applies to the individual elected officials on governing bodies throughout the state, such as city councils and county commissions.
Last year a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled that the law also applies to state legislators.
David Zeeck, who recently retired after decades as publisher of the Tacoma News Tribune, stated that with the proposed law, “it appears that the Legislature is trying to legislate itself out of a problem in the courts.”
Frank Blethen, publisher of the Seattle Times, also a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Legislature, testified in opposition to the bill. Asking the media to compromise here is asking them to bet against themselves in the court case, Blethen said.
“This not a battle you’re going to win in the court of public opinion,” Blethen added.
Cecilia Rexus, a member of the Tri City Herald editorial board, called in to give testimony in opposition of the bill.
“I find it troubling that we are having this conversation at all,” Rexus said. “This bill is going down the same road as last year. It was going the wrong direction then, and it’s going the wrong direction now.”
Laurie Williams, editor of the Tri City Herald, added: “This change that you’re proposing sends the wrong message, I think, in an era that is rife with conspiracy theories, paranoia, distrust and so-called fake news. This is not the time to give the public the sense that you have something to hide.”
Chairman Sam Hunt, D- Olympia, concluded the hearing saying: “We are not trying to hide things. We are trying to seek a better solution to clarify things without having to go to court.”
Read the full bill and follow it’s progress here: https://app.leg.wa.gov/billsummary?BillNumber=5784&Year=2019&Initiative=false
Watch hearing here: https://www.tvw.org/watch/?eventID=2019021202
Emma Epperly is a reporter with the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.