Media lawyers: WA legislators ‘not that special’ when it comes to public records law

A Washington state task force is exploring possible guidelines for a law governing legislative records.

On Tuesday, attorneys who specialize in media law told the panel that Washington law has hundreds of exemptions to the Public Records Act that would likely allow legislators to protect sensitive information, adding that lawmakers are not unique in that regard. City and county officials, who are covered by the records act, deal with a similar range of issues and are able to sort through the various exemptions to comply with public requests.

When voters overwhelmingly passed the 1972 initiative that created the Public Records Act, there were ten exemptions. Over the years, the Legislature has added to the list for that law and other statutes, and now there are 523 exemptions.

The task force includes eight legislators, three representatives of the news media, three members of the public, and an open government advocate. It was formed after news organizations led by the Associated Press successfully sued the Legislature over members’ refusal to release requested records.

With a state Supreme Court appeal expected, the Legislature moved with uncharacteristic speed and ignored its standard procedures to introduce and pass a bill exempting itself from the Public Records Act, and setting up its own procedures and exemptions. Facing pressure from the public and the state’s news media, many lawmakers reversed course and asked Governor Jay Inslee to veto a bill they had passed just days earlier with overwhelming majorities in both chambers.

The task force was set up to discuss the issue and produce a report for the 2019 session.  (Spokesman-Review)