WA bills making it harder to hold your public officials accountable need to die | Opinion

The Olympian file

Just weeks after getting blasted for finding yet another way to wiggle around the Washington state Public Records Act, legislators are back at it with a different approach.

And this latest effort is particularly upsetting.

Early in the year, a lawsuit was filed in Thurston County Superior Court challenging lawmakers’ use of “legislative privilege” to withhold public records.

It’s a term more and more lawmakers have been using so they can keep certain documents, text messages and emails to themselves.

Our editorial board criticized the strategy, noting too many legislators seem bent on trying to find ways to work in the dark when they know they’re supposed to be conducting all their business in the light.

Now, in the wake of this drama, two bills have been introduced that would make it even more difficult to sue the government over public records disputes.

This is a major problem because filing civil suits is the only recourse citizens have when government officials choose to withhold public documents.

Companion proposals House Bill 1597 and Senate Bill 5571 would legislatively impose a completely different process for obtaining public documents — ultimately adding obstacles to requests and giving government officials more time to stonewall.

The bipartisan-sponsored bills go against the spirit of transparency and, if passed, would put a chill over the process that ensures the public’s right to know.

A key problem is that the proposed legislation requires petitioners to sign documentation stating they are not requesting the records for an improper purpose.

The bills go on to define an “improper purpose” as one that could be deemed as harassment or frivolous.

We’ve seen what happens when lawmakers used the term “legislative privilege” to get around complying with the Public Records Act. It’s not much of a stretch to think they would abuse the term “improper purpose” the same way.

We understand there are a small number of people in our state who seem to take great delight in filing lawsuits against government officials for public meeting and public records violations.

But if transparency laws are being broken, citizens shouldn’t be blamed for trying to hold government officials accountable.

Rep. Amy Walen, D-Bellevue, is co-sponsoring the House bill and told McClatchy she believes public records lawsuits are an “enormous” cost to taxpayers. She said that in 2021, 133 court claims were filed costing agencies $7.2 million on litigation altogether.

She called the legislation a tiny policy fix and said, “I think the PRA is meant to be of benefit to people, not to have any sort of bad actors take advantage of the system.”

But in targeting “bad actors,” HB 1597 and SB 5571 go too far. These bills weaken the state Public Records Act and make it easier for elected officials to keep secrets — and that’s not acceptable.

In addition, the Washington Coalition for Open Government notes that there are already tools in place for government officials to deal with “the serial litigant.”

For one thing, judges already have the discretion to declare a records request frivolous, and they can impose fines against pro se requesters and their attorneys.

State legislators should not be messing with the state Public Records Act, and the thought of them amending it to their benefit is, frankly, mind-blowing.

But then again, they’ve made similar attempts before.

In 2018, a bill that would exclude the Legislature from disclosure laws was crafted behind closed doors and quickly approved by a veto-proof margin.

The public backlash was harsh and swift and, in the end, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed the measure and lawmakers backed down.

But here we are again.

You’d think they would learn by now that any attempt to put themselves outside of government accountability laws will not go over well.

HB 1597 and SB 5571 take power away from citizens and shift it to government officials. These bills should be put on a pile of bad ideas and stay there.