As their fight for government transparency becomes increasingly difficult, the Washington Sunshine Committee is considering disbanding.
By Joseph O’Sullivan / Crosscut.com / March 1, 2023
Some members of the Washington Sunshine Committee say their fight to keep the government transparent is increasingly fruitless. On Tuesday they began to debate whether to give up the ghost and disband.
Created in 2007, the Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee reviews exemptions to the state transparency law and recommends changes or repeals to exemptions that may be no longer necessary.
But at Tuesday’s meeting on the Capitol campus, Sunshine Committee chair Linda Krese said the pace of new exemptions that have cropped up since the Public Records Act passed in a 1972 voter-approved initiative is proving hard to keep up with. That transparency law requires the disclosure of taxpayer-funded documents such as emails, memos and texts to help the people of Washington evaluate how public servants are conducting their business.
In an email to Gov. Jay Inslee’s office last month, Krese asked the governor not to reappoint her to the committee. Krese wrote that she didn’t want “to spend time volunteering for something as purposeless as this committee.”
“If the Legislature has no interest in the work of the Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee, they should pass legislation to abolish it,” she wrote in the email, which was obtained by a request to the governor’s office.
As he forwarded the email to another member of Inslee’s office, Tip Wonhoff, the governor’s deputy general counsel who also sits on the committee, observed: “Morale is low on the Sunshine Committee.”
The members who attended Tuesday’s meeting – which included only one out of the four lawmakers who serve – voted on whether to recommend the Legislature repeal the law that established the committee. That vote failed, but it could come up again in the near future after more debate.
Krese, who is a former Snohomish County Superior Court judge, said there are now more than 600 exemptions carved into the Public Records Act.
“And it was striking to me that it took 35 years to get to 300 (exemptions) and only another 16 (years) to double that during the time this committee has been in existence,” Krese said.
At the same time, the committee is finding it more difficult to get lawmakers to sponsor and pass the committee’s recommendations, Krese said. On top of that, it’s a small volunteer committee with few staff resources to help with the overall workload.
“Frankly, if you look at the entire history of the committee, there’s very little that has ever taken off,” she said.
Lynn Kessler, a former state representative who sponsored legislation creating the committee, also cited the recent revelations last month that lawmakers are redacting documents that they disclose to the public, citing a legislative privilege.
A joint investigation by Crosscut and McClatchy – which owns The Tacoma News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and The Tri-Cities Herald – recently shed more light on lawmakers’ yearslong efforts to withhold documents from the public.
The concept of legislative privilege, which now faces a lawsuit, has not yet been sanctioned by the Washington Supreme Court. The high court did rule in 2019, however, that lawmakers’ offices are subject to the Public Records Act. That ruling came after a lawsuit filed by 10 news organizations challenging lawmakers’ claims for years that they were not subject to the state transparency law.
Kessler is a Democrat from Hoquiam, Grays Harbor County, and served out of the 24th Legislative District. That included time as House majority leader, a high-ranking position. She served for 18 years, and has long been known as an advocate for open government.
“It really is a sad, sad result,” said Kessler, adding: “And this year they’re being very upfront about wanting to be exempted.”
Kessler is one of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who authored the Sunshine Committee into statute, in an effort to promote good government and make sure the public servants were respecting the people of Washington. The legislation was requested by the state Attorney General’s Office.
An overwhelming majority of state voters in 1972 approved Initiative 276 to create Washington’s robust campaign-finance system and lobbying-disclosure regulations – and the Public Records Act.
“So, I’m not sure they really believe in open government, at least for themselves,” said Kessler. “So why would they get involved in the essence of this legislation that I proposed many years ago, and it passed.”
Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, was the only lawmaker who appeared at Tuesday’s meeting. He took exception to such characterizations.
“It’s based on overall broad impressions that the Legislature is not transparent,” Wilson said. “I don’t think that that’s professional, I don’t think that that’s fair.”
The senator added that he personally is comfortable being transparent with his office in Southwest Washington’s 19th Legislative District.
“Although I respect the ability of the room to say, ‘Should we even exist?’” he said. “But the topic alone of legislative privilege – can we let the courts do their job first?”
After the vote about disbanding, the committee moved on to other business. Wilson partook in a detailed discussion over the technicalities involving an exemption to the Public Records Act related to information about explosives. It’s an example of a tricky subject area that has to be navigated during a review of exemptions, as committee members try to assess what types of information should be withheld from the public.
Regardless of the debate on transparency, “I’m proud to be here,” said Wilson, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate’s State Government & Elections Committee.
In an email, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk wrote, “We support the Sunshine Committee’s mission and hope legislators would work constructively with them to address this issue of broad public interest.”
“At this time our office hasn’t discussed or landed on recommendations for addressing the concerns that have come to light from members,” Faulk wrote. “Our hope is this work can continue and we welcome ideas from elected officials and stakeholders on the best way to do that effectively.”
FEATURED IMAGE: Washington state legislators listen to Gov. Jay Inslee’s “State of the State” at the Washington State Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)
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