It was the piece of legislation that rocked the Northwest.
Senate Bill 6617, a measure to immediately and retroactively exempt all legislators from the state’s Public Records Act, was rushed through the Senate and the House as an “emergency” measure with no public hearing. In just 48 hours, it passed the Senate 41-7 and the House 83-14.
While it did allow for the disclosure of communications with lobbyists and of legislators’ calendars, these records would only be available after July 1 of this year. All communications with constituents — going back to the time of statehood — would be off-limits.
The Senate bill — and especially the manner in which it was passed — drew an overwhelming amount of censure from media organizations and citizens across the state. Gov. Jay Inslee’s office had received nearly 12,000 emails and 5,600 phone calls from constituents in response to SB 6617 by March 1.
Letters signed by 16 senators, 41 Democratic representatives and the entire House Republican Caucus (which consists of 48 members) urged Inslee to veto the bill on March 1.
“We made a mistake by failing to go through a full public hearing process on this very important legislation,” the Senate’s letter said. “The hurried process has overshadowed the positive reforms in the bill.”
Inslee vetoed the bill that evening, stating in a press release, “Transparency is a cornerstone of a democratic government.”
The bill was created as a response to a Jan. 19 judgment by Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese. The judgment came as an end to a lawsuit conducted by the Associated Press, the Northwest News Network, King 5, Kiro 7, the Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, the Spokesman Review, the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, Sound Publishing, the Tacoma News Tribune and the Seattle Times against the Legislature.
Legislators have argued that a 1995 amendment to the Public Records Act made all senators and representatives exempt from the act; however, Lanese’s order found this unlawful and declared that all individual legislators were subject to the Public Records Act.
“The plain meaning of the Public Records Act defines the offices of all state senators and representatives to be ‘agencies’ subject to the customary disclosure requirements of the Public Records Act,” Lanese stated in the order.
Nearly all of the legislators representing the Issaquah and Sammamish regions voted in support of the bill when it was passed on Feb. 23. Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), Rep. Tana Senn (D-Mercer Island) and Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-Mercer Island), all of the 41st Legislative District, voted for it, along with 45th District Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland), Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond), and the 5th District’s Rep. Jay Rodne (R-Snoqualmie) and Sen. Mark Mullet (D-Issaquah).
Of the above legislators, only Dhingra’s and Goodman’s names were not included in the letters to the governor asking him for a veto.
“I am from local government where all public records were open. SB 6617 was an unprecedented opening of legislative records,” Senn told the Reporter. “While it didn’t go far enough, it was the bill before us. Unfortunately, the lack of transparency put a cloud over the whole thing … We asked the governor to veto the bill, which he did, so we can have a robust, transparent process.”
Mullet said that he liked the balance struck between the disclosure of correspondence with lobbyists and the privacy of correspondence with constituents.
“Every communication from a lobbyist should be publicly disclosable,” he said. But, “there’s a fine line of making sure lobbyist information is disclosable and constituent information stays private.”
“People write in with really personal stories — domestic violence, alcohol abuse stories,” Mullet said. “I don’t want that stuff out in the public record. When they email me, they assume I’m not sharing their stories on the internet or with newspapers … that it’s between me and them.”
“I initially supported the bill because I believe in the positive transparency reforms it would have enacted,” Wellman said in a statement. “However, I recognize the process through which the bill came to be was flawed and did not adequately provide for public input … I look forward to an open process where all stakeholders, including the public and the media, have the opportunity to share their concerns on this important piece of legislation.”
Fifth Dist. Rep. Paul Graves (R-Fall City) was the only local legislator to vote against SB 6617. A passionate proponent of government transparency, Graves in December introduced legislation to mandate that legislators be subject to public records requests.
“I thought the bill itself was bad in substance and the process that brought it about was bad in process,” Graves said of SB 6617.
“I think we should have to [be subject to the Public Records Act] — we are using public funds to create [those records],” he explained. “This is a government created for the people, by the people. They have a right to know.”