A fair balance needed between open legislative records and constituent privacy

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After enormous public outcry, stirred by newspaper editorials across the state, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed Senate Bill 6617, the Legislative Public Records Act.

There’s a great deal of misinformation disseminated about the bill, what it would and wouldn’t do, and the newspapers have drawn into question the lawmakers who supported it. I’d like to explain why I voted for this bill.

Since the Public Records Act (PRA) passed in 1972, the Legislature has maintained it is an independent branch of government, not an “agency,” and therefore exempt from the PRA, just as the judicial branch of government is also not subject to the PRA. For 45 years, the Legislature has operated under this exemption.

A coalition of 10 media organizations spent a considerable amount of money to sue and force the PRA to apply to the Legislature. Last month, a Thurston County judge ruled that while the Legislature is not an agency, the 147 individual legislators are agencies. Under his ruling, every legislator would be required to have an individual public records officer available at least 30 hours per week to respond to public records requests, write their own agency rules and adopt individual public disclosure regulations. This ruling, if allowed to stand, could slow the operations of this part-time citizen Legislature to a snail’s pace, not to mention the cost to taxpayers. This is completely unworkable and needed a response.

Senate Bill 6617 was that response. The news coalition that won the case was flabbergasted and angered the Legislature would attempt to surpass the court ruling. I was surprised at the speed it appeared on the House floor and disappointed with the quick process that brought it about. As a member of the Republican minority caucus in the House, we don’t get to choose which bills we vote on or when they come up for a vote. That’s an exclusive decision by the majority party.

As the bill came to the floor, I deliberated the policy to decide how to vote. I’ve been a strong supporter of open and transparent government. Since elected to office, I’ve worked to carefully make reforms in the state’s Public Records Act to reduce abusive records requests, while making sure public access is paramount.

Senate Bill 6617 directed the Legislature to make available to the public all of our calendar details and correspondence with lobbyists. This would include their email and text messages, and final dispositions of disciplinary proceedings in the Legislature. Additionally, legislators would be free under this bill to release other records as long as they do not violate a person’s privacy or produce records that are confidential under state and/or federal laws. These are all steps toward a more open and transparent government.

Although I was frustrated with the process of how the bill came about, it was the policy that mattered. After weighing the issue, I decided to vote yes. My vote was not to “hide,” or  “shield” legislative records, promote “secrecy,” or “keep your business from you” as newspaper headlines accused lawmakers who voted in the affirmative. In fact, we did the opposite. We moved toward greater transparency.

The bill took another step, which I felt very important. It protected the privacy of the constituents we represent. Occasionally, legislators receive emails from citizens disclosing very personal information, such as child rape of foster care kids, medical information and even whistleblower information. Would you still call my office if you knew sensitive information you disclose to me or other legislators could make its way into the newspapers?

The Legislature is a political place by nature. There is a real concern disclosure laws could be used not only against legislators, but as a weapon of backlash against constituents who have contacted us. Their information, because of the PRA, would now risk exposing their personal privacy.

With the governor’s veto, these concerns still need to be addressed. I am glad to hear the media coalition plaintiffs have offered to work collaboratively with legislators for better legislation – something that was not available to us when we voted on the bill.

My goal is to strike a fair balance between protecting the constituents we serve while creating a more open and transparent government in the Legislature. I welcome public input to this process, because this is your government.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, serves the 16th Legislative District.

State Representative Terry Nealey
16th Legislative District
404 John L. O'Brien Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
360-786-7828 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000