As a former elected official, I know what it’s like to have most everything I write, email, or post on my calendar potentially obtained, read and published by the media or anyone who asks. As a Seattle School Board Director for the last four years, that was my reality
Sure, it can be a nuisance and it can impede your sense of free expression and confidentiality.
But as a journalist and public citizen, I also know the importance of the public being able to know what their elected officials and government bodies are doing in their name, with their tax dollars. Such public disclosure requirements are an essential component of a healthy democracy.
During my term, I was constantly subjected to public disclosure requests, from journalists, others, but most often from anonymous requesters. I simply established the philosophy that everything I wrote or said could end up on the front page of a newspaper and I was okay with that. It can be a good exercise – it teaches you to stand by your words.
Which brings me to Senate Bill 6617, sponsored by Senators Sharon Nelson (D) and Mark Schoesler (R) which Governor Inslee must act on by midnight today. I agree with the media organizations that have claimed that the state’s 1972 Public Records Act law covers all elected officials statewide. A Thurston County Superior Court judge also recently agreed. But last week, the state legislature changed the law to exempt themselves from the transparency rules that all other state officials must abide by.
I’m baffled and frankly rather enervated that our legislators, Democrats and Republicans alike, should expect a cloud of secrecy around their work that no other elected officials are afforded–nor should have. Why should our state legislators who make decisions that are arguably far more impactful statewide than those of our school board directors, city council and county council members, not be held to the same standard that the rest of us are? We all make policy.
The manner in which they passed this change to the law – Senate and House meetings in quick succession with no public hearings – casts their actions in the dark shadows of suspicion.
I am open to hearing compelling explanations for why their change to the law is better. But I am skeptical. Because if there is a legitimate reason, why were the legislators afraid to have a public hearing and normal process to make their case?
Where I do agree with them is in the concern about revealing sensitive information about constituents. It’s true the law already allows government bodies to redact any information that is not relevant to the request that may violate confidentiality of a non-elected official. But there have been abuses of the law.
Last year, for example, it was very troubling to see a journalist publish email sent from private parents to the Seattle School District, and misrepresent the content. This is wrong. In a KUOW radio story called “To understand white liberal racism, read these private emails,” the reporter Isolde Raftery boasted, “These parents would not talk to us, so we did a public records request for their emails.” She acknowledged that these were “private” and not from elected officials, yet published them anyway.
Private families are not public figures. They believe they are writing to their representatives confidentially. Especially when it comes to their children, parents write with emotion and sensitivity. These emails were misrepresented and exploited by a board director and a reporter. Those PRA requests should not have been granted. This was an abuse of the law. So I support protecting those documents if that is the intent of the state legislators.
But I don’t support a special exemption for state legislators themselves.
My qualm with the Public Records Act is that it increasingly has been used as a tool for nuisance. Instead of being a legitimate tool for news media or watchdog groups looking for background info on a specific issue and keeping the public informed, anonymous entities can launch fishing expeditions asking for broad general sweeps of documents with no real topic, just to harass an elected official or a government organization. These expeditions take up time and resources. The age of digital communication has allowed for the proliferation and easy access of communications that the legislators who drafted the law in 1972 could not have imagined.
Back then, documents were paper, and far less in quantity. Nowadays, public officials, like most people, generate hundreds of emails a week or even daily. The volume can be enormous, but the transmission relatively easy. Sifting through and analyzing hundreds of emails is time-consuming and costly. Honoring the law has become onerous and unreasonable in the digital age, but not for the reasons SB 6617 addresses.
I support a review of the law to establish parameters of reasonable merit. This will allow government bodies to focus their public resources on responding to legitimate requests.
It will be a test of Governor Inslee’s leadership and character today if he takes a stand and rightly vetoes this bill, or passively lets this slide into law as he did with last year’s charter school bill. But a shadow remains over the legislature’s actions that brought us to this point.
Sue Peters is a journalist and communication strategist who served on the Seattle School Board from 2013-17, most recently as board president.