Rep. Steele comments on his vote in favor of SB 6617


Rep. Mike Steele

Many of you have contacted my office about my vote on Senate Bill 6617 (The Legislative Public Records Act). I have always cared for and championed open and transparent government.
The Legislative Public Records Act was actually an attempt to increase disclosure and transparency for the state Legislature, which in the past, had always been exempt from the Public Records Act.
It was a good effort, but the process failed.
In our attempt to do something that would have created more transparency, while at the same time protecting sensitive personal constituent information sent to legislative offices, we did not meet the public’s rightful expectation of a fair and open public discussion on the merits of the bill. We are correcting that now with the letter recently sent to the governor.
I believe strongly this policy should be addressed before the Legislature adjourns.
Since the Public Records Act (PRA) was approved in 1972, the Legislature has held that it is an independent branch of government, not an “agency.” The judicial branch has also adopted its own rules and maintained the same position.
More than a year ago, several members of the media sued the Legislature claiming the Public Records Act should apply to all legislative offices. Just a few short weeks ago, a Thurston County Judge agreed. In his ruling, Judge Chris Lanese stated that individual legislators are agencies subject to the PRA. He went on to say, “If the Legislature disagrees, it can say something different by amending the law.”
Based on the court’s ruling, the Legislature did what the court recommended. We attempted to change the law to clarify how legislative records should be handled. We began the process of opening up the legislative process in an honest and fair way, while at the same time protecting our constituents private and personal information.
Senate Bill 6617 did not go far enough in opening up government records to the public, but it was a step in the right direction. It was also the only bill allowed to move forward this session on this important policy topic.
Problems with the court’s ruling.
There are some troubling aspects to the court’s decision unfairly being under-reported by the media. First, if each individual representative is considered his own “agency” all 147 members of the Legislature would then be required to hire individual public records officers, maintain offices with copying facilities, and be available up to 30 hours per week to respond to pubic record requests.
By law, all 147 members would also be required to adopt WACs (regulations of executive branches issued like statutes) and create their own individual disclosure policies. All of this adds up to more costs to taxpayers. It also creates a Legislature unable to function in a timely manner.
Disclosure of personal information.
Even more troubling is that sensitive constituent information would be available to the media and others. Legislative offices routinely receive calls on foster care situations, unemployment claims, requests for help on issues involving mental health, developed disabled family members, medical and whistleblower information.
What the media is not reporting in the news is this material would be available to them.
While some aspects of this personal information is protected, like social security numbers and birthdates, too much of the context of this personal correspondence would be exposed. I believe if more people knew this material would be available to newspaper reporters, it would provide a better context of understanding of why so many legislators supported the initial passage of the bill under discussion.
Documents that have never been available before: meetings, emails, and letters to lobbyists.
The court’s decision would also routinely allow the public to know locations of meetings. While I do not have a problem disclosing the context or subject of legislative meetings, I do have an issue sharing location information.
There are concerns, especially among female legislators, that routinely revealing addresses and location of meetings would make it easier for nefarious individuals to stalk or harass them.
Documents shared with the public, that have never been disclosed previously.
Senate Bill 6617 would have protected certain categories of documents, such as correspondence with constituents, while at the same time releasing letters, emails and contextual information pertaining to legislative calendar items and meetings, including correspondence and emails with lobbyists and other stakeholders.
Making changes for more transparency.
A better proposal introduced in December 2017, House Bill 2255, The Transparency Act, is referenced in our letter to the governor.
The Legislature rushed the legislative process on the previous bill. We will not, and cannot afford to do that again. We are demanding House Bill 2255, The Legislative Transparency Act be heard, fully vetted by the public and allowed to move forward in the legislative process. The bill would fix the problem of legislative offices being their own “agencies” while at the same time protecting the privacy of Washington state citizens.

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