Rep. Stonier’s statement regarding ESB 6617: Concerning records disclosure obligations of the legislative branch. (Public Records Act)
February 27, 2018 | By Washington House Democrats
It is not surprising that when transparency of government is in question, that there will be considerable concern from the public, emails and phone calls to my office, and media attention. This is as it should be. Washington State is widely acknowledged for being a leader in government transparency practices, including the creation of the Public Disclosure Commission over 40 years ago.
I am proud of the open government practices we have held in Washington State and will continue to work to lead in this area. Below are reasons I supported ESB 6617 and some lingering questions I hope to address. If your questions and concerns are not addressed here, I hope you will contact my office email or phone to follow up.
As we know, when you are out in front leading, your work is watched closely. So first, I would like to start with the most immediate concern raised by the public. The traditional process, including a public hearing, was not followed. While I felt the policy in the bill struck an important balance between transparency and constituent confidentiality, I was disappointed this bill did not have a public hearing.
In an earlier response, I mentioned there was a work session where the public could weigh in. However, it became clear in phone calls and emails to my office that my constituents did not believe that was acceptable. This is why I signed a letter asking Governor Inslee to veto the bill so we can roll the bill back for a more thorough process.
Thank you for reaching out to share how you felt about the process. The reservations I had early on were confirmed by your outreach and I sincerely apologize for allowing a rushed process on a bill that was supposed to increase transparency.
Next, I would like to share my reasons for initially supporting the policy in ESB 6617. Since before I was born, the legislature has been established as an independent branch of government, like the judiciary branch, and is not an “agency” of the state, which is an important distinction.
While I believe more internal records from the legislature should be publicly disclosed to the public, I have other considerations. Recently, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Lanese ruled that, while he agreed the legislature is not an agency, each of our individual offices are considered agencies in his view.
This position is absurd, in fact so absurd, we believe we would win on appeal and the policy would revert to the old disclosure practices, which we can agree are too restrictive. To illustrate, if my office were to act as an “agency” of the government, compliance with the Public Records Act as it exists would mean that my office would spend an estimated 20-30 hours a week compiling relevant documents and redacting identifying, sensitive, and protected information about my constituents.
Not only does this require training for my staff, or additional staff, it actually significantly reduces the number of hours I am able to serve my district to the extent legislators across the state will be unable to perform the duties of our offices.
This ruling that each of the 147 legislative offices be considered an “agency” is where my personal concerns about Judge Lanese’s ruling comes in for me. It will always be my primary concern that I protect the privacy and confidentiality of my constituents as they have expected, and as the law has protected.
When my office is contacted by the people in my district, and across the state for that matter, I can only represent them well if their communications are protected from becoming front news stories and if my office can operate. The nature of constituent emails and letters include stories of their struggles to access health care, desires to access mental health services, concerns about the lack of substance abuse treatment programs, challenges or concerns with existing law, struggles to find housing, workplace issues, issues of abuse, concerns about retaliation. Judge Lanese’s ruling makes compliance unattainable if I were to honor the privacy of the people and keep identifying information from being disclosed to the media.
I supported ESB 6617 because it both protects the privacy of my constituents AND moves toward broader disclosure of records not previously subject to requests. This bill complies with Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s directive to:
- Begin disclosing previously exempt documents including my calendar, letters and emails from
- Clarify how legislative records should be managed to ensure
- Create a new public records office and fund staff to ensure
I have seen in my emails and in the media some concerns about the prospective nature of this policy. While this initially raised concern for me as well, it took only a moment of reflection for me to realize that all communications with my office had occurred under past policy. It would a breach of the public’s trust to change the rules around disclosure retrospectively.
While some media outlets may disagree, my constituents who have communicated sensitive information to my office prefer the protections of the policy that has been in place since the passage of the Public Records Act in 1972.
I am happy to comply with new transparent policies that promote open government moving forward, now that those who contact me know that if they are lobbyists, our meetings and communications are subject to disclosure, but the privacy of my constituents will remain protected.
As we move toward such transparency, I appreciate continued feedback from constituents and stakeholders so that my office continues to operate in accordance to your expectations.
In closing, I will agree that the process was rushed and I would have preferred to follow the traditional path for a bill through committees. However, I am deeply disappointed by the tone many editorial boards around the state have taken. Strongly opposing a bill is one thing, but suggesting lawmakers voted to make “state
government more secretive” (The Columbian, 2/27/2018) is doing the public a disservice. Senate Bill 6617 would have opened up more legislative records than was has been disclosed for the last 45 years. That is a simple fact. Under previous law, almost nothing was disclosed and I agree that was not the right policy.
Thurston County Judge Lanese said in his ruling that if the legislature did not agree with his ruling, then we should take action to change the law. In the end, we took his advice and considered a bill that discloses more.
I trust my good will and hard work as a legislator will have a stronger influence on how my community views this vote and request for a veto, than that of the media who are acting out of frustration that they may not have access to the personal information of constituents I choose to protect.
With respect and ongoing commitment,
49th Legislative District