Legislators exempt themselves from public access to their records


Published February 23rd, 2018.

On February 21st a controversial bill, Senate Bill 6617 was introduced by Washington State Democrat Senate Majority Leader Sharon Nelson and Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler via the 'Tribal Relations & Elections Committee'.  The bill writers exempted elected state government representatives from the Public Records Act, open government laws, public records requests, etc.

At about 1:30 PM today ESB 6617 passed both the Senate and House, yes our elected public officials at the state level have blocked themselves from accountability to the citizens who elected them via public record requests.  Final vote was 41-7 in the Senate and 83-14 in the House.  Thanks to LD 39 Senator Keith Wagoner who voted no and was against this bill.

If enacted into law members of the state Senate and House can opt not to disclose a variety of documents, such as correspondence with anyone they consider to be their 'constituents'.  The bill will allow disclosure of some records, such as communications between lawmakers and 'registered' lobbyists, if created after July 1, 2018.

The many legislators that voted yes to ESB 6617 say they feel that privacy with their constituents is paramount and that public access to their private meeting, emails, conversations, etc. is not acceptable and that the Public Records Act has never applied to the state Legislators. 

The new law would set up disclosure rules that mirror elements of the 1972 Public Records Act, but now lawmakers themselves would act as final arbiters of what may or may not be released.  If the public does not like potential future laws, policies, etc. too bad because there is no access to legislative records via the public process.  Needless to say the public perception of this sets a dangerous precedent, i.e. Hillary Clinton emails, FBI text messages, etc.

ESB 6617 says explicitly in section 102 that the records act does not apply to the Legislature and an emergency clause attached to the new law prevents a citizen referendum from overturning it.  An initiative could be launched but requires twice the signatures as a referendum.  Otherwise only a  Governor Inslee veto can stop this.

Of additional concern is the manner that this law was passed.  On February 22nd, a last minute noontime work session was held by the Democrat controlled 'Tribal Relations & Elections Committee'.  The public was given less than a 24 hour notice for this 'work session' which totally circumvented the normal bill cut off date, committee meetings, and public hearings procedure because the makers of the bill were declaring it an emergency measure. It appears 'the powers that be' believe exempting themselves from the consequences of hiding records to be considered an emergency.

Section 303 of SB 6617 says, ​This act is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, or safety, or support of the state government and it's existing public institutions, and it takes effect immediately.​

Many Washington state newspaper representatives spoke in vehement opposition to SB 6617 during the one hour work session yesterday.  They said that if there was a 48  or 72 hour notice the room would have been full of people opposing this horrible legislation.  Of note: A total of six members of the public were briefly allowed to testify on the bill during the one hour work session, all six were strongly opposed to the legislation.

Discussion made it clear that this bill would allow special interests, tribes, unions, attorneys, etc. to speak / negotiate with lawmakers in secrecy with no transparency via public records.  If no Inslee veto, the law would go into effect immediately and would be retroactive and apply to all records requests and lawsuits under chapter 42.56 RCW.  

Transparency in government is what makes our democracy work and even though this law may have some good intentions the perception is that it will allow government secrecy and corruption to flourish.


Bill Bruch, SCRP Chairman





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