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Transparency vs. Secrecy: Why everyone's talking about SB 6617

Transparency vs. Secrecy: Why everyone's talking about SB 6617

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Washington law makers passed a bill on Friday that removed themselves from the state's voter-approved Public Records Act—and they passed it just hours after being introduced.

This bill keeps years of emails and other documents off-limits and gives lawmakers discretion over what information is open to the public and what information remains secret.

Senate Bill 6617 passed in the Senate 41 - 9 without debate, and minutes later House law makers approved it with 83 - 14.

Legislators say it is a step toward more productivity, while critics say it’s an assault on the public's right to know.

"The legislature is supposed to listen to us and act on what we want for policy," said Jason Mercier, director for Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center in the Tri-Cities.

Mercier said it's his job to address government accountability.

Senate Bill 6617 was passed with in less than 48 hours, Mercier said, he added that lawmakers bypassed normal legislative procedures, disregarding a five-day notice, public hearings, and committee action.

"That is unacceptable," Mercier said. "It totally turns the legislative process on its head and is everything wrong with them doing rushed action.”

Last month, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Chris Lanese ruled state representatives and senators and their offices are fully subject to the same broad public disclosure requirements that cover other local and state elected officials and employees at state agencies.

Mercier said lawmakers in Olympia should play by the same rules as our local city council, school district and our governor.

"There should be no double standard," he said.

Embroiling controversy over the issue is manifesting with thousands of voters contacting the governor and now more than a dozen major newspapers throughout the state are breaking tradition and publishing editorials on the front page calling on Inslee to veto the bill.

"Those are things you don't usually see happening," Mercier said. “So the public is be awakened to the fact that this was being done in very wrong way."

In an interview on MSNBC Monday night, Inslee was asked about this bill and if he’d veto it. The governor said he can’t veto it because it has the super majority vote.

Yet, just last year he vetoed a B&O manufacturing tax cut that passed with a super majority vote because he thought it wasn’t enacted in a trans parent way.

Governor Inslee declined Action News’ request for comment on Tuesday, and has remained curious on the issue. However, in a press conference last week he said that a veto may be futile.

"But my position is the legislature could be successful under the same rules that we live in,” Inslee said. “Now there is cost associated with that to administer this program. But I believe Washingtonians deserve this transparency."

However, local legislators say it's extremely time consuming to handle hundreds of public records requests, keeping them from effective leadership.

"It's important that the public knows what we're doing, but it's also important that we can do our job,” said Rep. Bill Jenkin, of the 16th District. “And the way that that was set up it would be impossible to do it."

Rep. Jenkins said he’d like to promise his constituents privacy when talking to him about their problems and concerns.

However, there are already 500 exemptions from public disclosure for sensitive information, allowing records officials to deny or redact requests.

The bipartisan bill prohibits the release of lawmaker communication with constituents, but allows release of some lawmaker correspondence beginning on July 1, including those with lobbyists; information from lawmaker calendars; and final disciplinary reports.

However, because the bill is retroactive, it would prohibit the release of the records being sought by the coalition of news organizations that sued last September and who prevailed in an initial court ruling last month.

Governor Inslee only has until midnight Thursday to decide what action to take.

Inslee can sign the bill into law, take no action, allowing the bill to take effect without his signature, or veto the bill, forcing legislators to take up the issue again and giving the public more time to voice its concerns.

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