By Ken Stern 

Keep public records public

 

February 15, 2023



Dear fellow citizens.

Help, please, by paying attention to your state government and taking a stand to keep public records public, available to you – and to the journalists and activists.

Tell your legislators and Attorney General Bob Ferguson that the documents created by legislators elected to serve citizens must be seen by citizens and not blocked behind a legislative privilege they claim and desire but does not exist.

What do legislators tell us all the time? That they work behind the scenes, that they meet day and night – sometimes in cloakrooms – researching, drafting and crafting legislation. All that is fine and dandy. It is what we want our public servants to do on our behalf while shaping a better future for our state.

But none of that hard work is protected from the public by the state constitution. Legislators and the attorney general are wrong in claiming immunity by Article II, Section 17, that “no member of the legislature shall be liable in any civil action or criminal prosecution whatsoever, for words spoken in debate”.

Legislative debate takes place on the floor of the House or Senate. That is what debate is. We all know what debate is. The family debates football or politics over the dinner table or in the car. You debate with friends watching the game at home or in a bar. Debate is oral discussion.

This state clause models the U.S. Constitution, again protecting federal legislators from prosecution for their statements made while discussing legislation. Article I, Section 6 is clear. It protects our representatives: “for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.”

Legislative minutia in the office, be it letters, reports or phone calls or, in today's world, emails and texts, is not debate.

Written and electronic communications outside the chambers, between legislators – and certainly with lobbyists – is not “debate.”

Why do legislators seek to hide their communications – the work they do in service to us – from us, whom they represent? What do they have to hide? “Trivial or inane” documents, at least some of them, wrote Danny Westneat in the Feb. 8 Seattle Times.

Legislators already treat themselves very well. They stretch too far in claiming a privilege to protect documents they create in service to the public from the public.

Your job? Write or call your legislators and Attorney General Ferguson. I am, and will tell them their case in the state Supreme Court is against the spirit and letter of the law created when voters passed the 1972 Public Records Act.

We, the people, won the debate that year with our argument in the court of public opinion. Voters agreed that documents created by public officials in service to the public must be made available for the public to see and review.

Now the legislature and attorney general are spending taxpayer dollars in court arguing against the population's will.

The law requires legislators to provide when requested documents they create while doing the people's business. We meant they in 1972. Fifty years later we need to insist that the law applies and means what it said when passed.

That is why they are called sunshine acts. People want legislators to do the people's business in the light of day.

It is your responsibility to petition your government:

Sen Ron Muzzall: 360-786-7618; [email protected].

Rep. Dave Paul: 360-786-7914; [email protected].

Rep. Clyde Shavers: 360-786-7884; [email protected].

 

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