Here’s why people are mad at Washington legislators over our public records law

We’re updating this post with new information and links as this story develops.

Last week, the Washington State Legislature overwhelmingly voted in favor of exempting itself  from the voter-approved Public Records Act. As of Tuesday, at least 12 major news organizations published editorials slamming the bill. This might sound like a wonky politics issue, but it’s SUPER important if you’ve ever appreciated learning about stories like this and this and this. So we’re gonna break this whole thing down for you.

What even is a public record?

Public records include everything from public officials’ calendars, e-mails, and text messages to their disciplinary records and birth dates.

Isn’t that stuff private?

Not when you’re a public official, according to Washington State’s Public Records Act, which voters approved in 1972.

Why’s it so important that these kind of documents aren’t private?

Because we live in a democracy, we elect public officials to represent our voices and concerns. Officials conduct a lot of their business over emails and text messages. When they’re able to hide those documents from their constituents, it makes it harder for us to determine whether they’re actually serving our interests and using their time (and our tax dollars) effectively.

So why’s everyone so upset about this new bill?

Democratic and Republican members of the State House and Senate took just two days — break-neck speed for state officials — to approve a bill that allows them to pick and choose what public records are released to their constituents, AKA all of us. The new bill also prevents old records from being publicly released.

Yikes.

Right? And it gets worse: Up until last week’s vote, concerned citizens and reporters have been able to appeal state officials’ refusal to release public records to the courts. This new bill, if passed into law, would prevent them from doing even that.

So why exactly do legislators want this bill passed?

State politicians have said this bill gives them the privacy to do their jobs more effectively and that it would improve government transparency. They’ve also said that individual politicians can always choose to release more information than outlined in the new bill. Local news outlets disagree. Here’s a Facebook post written by Washington State Representative Joe Fitzgibbon explaining why he stands by his vote. 

Why does all this matter to me? Can’t media people only request public records?

Nope! The Washington State Public Records Act, which voters approved in 1972, says anybody can request copies of public records to see what our representatives are doing on public time. (In fact, here’s a template you can use to submit a public records request to any agency and here’s a breakdown of how you’d go about requesting those documents.)

How did this bill come up, anyway?

Last September, The Associated Press, The Seattle Times, KING-TV, and other Washington news orgs sued the state government for refusing to hand over their schedules, e-mails, and text messages. When the State Legislature appealed their lawsuit, a Thurston County judge even ruled that state officials have to comply with the Public Records Act. Want even more context around how all this got started? Check out this interview from KUOW.

OK, you’ve convinced me. This sounds bad. What can I do?

This bill hasn’t been made into law — yet. Washington Governor Jay Inslee has until the end of day tomorrow to veto or strike down the Legislature’s bill and force legislators to comply with the state’s public records laws.

So you can call Inslee’s office to tell him what you think about all this: 360-902-4111.

You can also call the state legislator who represents your district and share your thoughts. Find your district here and look at this handy list from The Seattle Times to identify who voted for or against the bill.

 

Got more questions about this bill? Send those to [email protected] and we’ll go digging for you.