Legislators Keep Secrets

In 2007 I was the beneficiary of serendipity, which essentially is the accidental discovery of treasure.

For a story on the scene behind the legislative scenes on the NASCAR debate, I made a public records request for all communications between legislators and other government officials about the proposal. What I did not know at the time was that e-mail communications strictly between legislators is not subject to state public disclosure rules. Legislators are exempted from the law.

The reason I was able to get the documents was because local government officials are not exempted. Since so many of the communications were copied to locals, I could have solicited the documents from several different closer sources. The lawyers working for the Legislature recognized this and recommended making all the documents available, since I could get them elsewhere.

The (Tacoma) News Tribune opines Monday that lawmakers ought to remove the exemption they keep for themselves.

“There’s no legitimate reason for legislators to avoid public scrutiny. Failure to void this exemption would send a clear signal to their constituents: Butt out.”

I guess what I enjoyed wasn’t quite serendipity. I was looking for treasure, just not at the right source. I got it anyway.

I don’t know the reasoning behind the legislators’ exemption from the law, but I can imagine that local government officials could make the same or similar arguments to remove their responsibility to be open. Maybe one of you can explain why a legislator should or should not be different from county and city officials.

One thought on “Legislators Keep Secrets

  1. It is sad that there would even be a debate about whether the legislature should continue to exempt themselves from the open public records and meetings acts.

    I wish I could say it was painful to watch the legislature debate the choices about what to cut and what to preserve in the state budget this year. However, we, the public, didn’t get to see but a small portion of that debate because the vast majority of it was orchestrated and hammered out behind closed doors! What a shame that we could not see which legislators stood up for the priorities of government (like public education) and which legislators worked deals to keep their pet projects. Hardly doing “our business in the light of day”.

    From President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address:

    “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.”

    Should the state legislature be subject to the laws they enact upon the rest of us? Absolutely! Should they engage their debate and their decision making process in the light of day? Double Absolutely!

    Kathryn Simpson

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