The fight continues today in Olympia over whether our elected state lawmakers can withhold from the people — their bosses — documents such as emails, calendars and reports.
In this round, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments over the release of documents generated in a workplace harassment case involving Democratic Rep. Jeff Morris of Mount Vernon. State House officials refused to release the most recent workplace report prepared by an outside investigator for the Legislature.
Now it’s going to the state’s high court.
Supreme Court justices are reviewing the lawsuit brought by news organizations throughout the state challenging the Legislature’s claimed exemption to the Public Records Act.
And while the case involving the workplace harassment is important, the central issue that must be addressed is whether the Legislature can exempt itself from the Open Public Records act that local governments bodies — from school boards to city councils — must follow.
We strongly believe that lawmakers can’t exempt themselves from the law, which was originally approved by voters.
A Thurston County Superior Court Judge in January 2018 agreed in part with the news organizations in a ruling that said legislative leaders had unlawfully rejected public-records requests because lawmakers’ individual offices are state agencies under the law.
The claim that each lawmakers office is an individual agency has clouded this already murky issue.
Our view is that the Legislature, as a whole, is no different than a local city council or school board. The public has a right to have access of the records produced, including the emails that are sent and received as part of the elected officials’ official duties.
Last year the Legislature approved a law that exempted its members from parts of the Open Records Act. The public was outraged, and as a result more than 20,000 members of the public contacted Gov. Jay Inslee’s office urging him to veto that legislation — which he did. Individual lawmakers were also flooded with emails and phone calls in protest.
A task force with members from the Legislature and the media was formed. The task force’s final recommendation — a call for more transparency — sounded promising but the effort at turning that into legislation didn’t match the push for transparency.
It’s the summer of 2019 and no resolution is in sight.
The case that went before the high court today is likely just another round of the fight over legislative accountability.
In the end, when the final court decision is rendered, we expect that transparency in government will prevail.
The sooner lawmakers accept the reality that they, like locally elected officials, must follow the law, the better state government will serve the people.