Editor’s note: Today’s editorials originally appeared in The Columbian. Editorial content from other publications and authors is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
Regardless of the eventual outcome of a case in front of the state Supreme Court, legislators must recognize that they work for the people of Washington.
Imagine, for a moment, if employees at a private company tried to keep their work-related emails secret from the boss. Or if they declined to reveal who they met with during a work-related lunch. Absurd, right? Yet that kind of subterfuge is exactly what lawmakers continue to foist upon the state’s citizens — the people who hire them and pay their salaries.
The latest salvo in this ongoing battle was delivered Tuesday during oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court. Lawyers for the Legislature insist that they are exempt from some segments of the state Public Records Act. They say that revisions to the law originally passed by voters in 1972 should allow legislators to keep some records from public scrutiny.
A media coalition has challenged that assertion, and in January 2018 a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled that the offices of individual lawmakers are subject to the Public Records Act, but the Legislature, House and Senate are exempt from some provisions. That is what landed the issue in front of the Supreme Court this week, with a decision expected in several months.
Throughout the process, lawmakers have repeatedly ignored the fact that they work for the public.
Following the lower court ruling, they hastily passed a bill attempting to codify their exemptions. Ignoring established procedures for writing and vetting a bill, they incurred the ire of the public; media outlets throughout the state editorially urged Gov. Jay Inslee to veto the bill, and about 20,000 citizens contacted the governor’s office to echo that message. The governor did, indeed, veto the bill.
In the wake of that public outcry, a task force of legislators and media representatives was convened to find a solution. But legislation proposed this year failed to garner much support.
The bottom line is that lawmakers have failed to heed the previous court ruling or the will of the people, and they have failed to explain why they should operate under different rules than other government entities. Elected officials from school board members to county councilors are subject to the Public Records Act, yet legislators continue to use specious arguments that they should be partially exempt.
In response, we turn to the 1972 initiative passed by voters. Citizens, the law reads, “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 they have created.”
That philosophy should be embraced by lawmakers; instead, their persistent opposition undermines the foundation of open and transparent government.
If legislators win a partial or complete victory in the Supreme Court, it will be a Pyrrhic one. Government secrecy is not something to be lauded or celebrated, nor is it something to be embraced. Lawmakers should put an end to this charade and pass legislation that ensures they are beholden to the same laws as other elected officials and that they comply with the will of the public.
As that public can attest, there is nothing so special about legislators that they should be exempt from the Public Records Act. And we should know; after all, we hire them and pay their salaries.