Several media outlets, including public radio, have filed an open records lawsuit against the Washington Legislature. The lawsuit filed Tuesday seeks access to lawmaker emails, text messages and calendars.
This is information city council members and other public and elected officials have to release under Washington’s robust Public Records Act. But Washington lawmakers cite a 1995 definition of legislative records to exempt themselves from disclosing calendars and communications.
That means reporters and members of the public can’t access text messages between a lawmaker and a lobbyist or calendars showing who a legislative leader has met with. Some lawmakers have voluntarily released calendars and selected emails and text messages in response to recent public disclosure requests.
But the position of legislative lawyers is that disclosure is not mandated. The media coalition suing the state legislature is led by the Associated Press and includes the public radio Northwest News Network.
Earlier this year, Washington’s four legislative leaders rejected a public records request from the Northwest News Network and The Seattle Times for office calendars, emails related to the state budget and education funding, as well as communications or documents sent between the leaders and education lobbyists.
In June, Capitol reporters submitted individual requests to all 147 legislators for records. That was followed by another request in July from the attorney representing the media coalition that's suing.
In each case, the legislature denied the requests on the grounds that records “under the personal control of the individual members of the legislature” are not subject to disclosure.
However, a few lawmakers voluntarily released records including Democratic state Rep. Gerry Pollet who wrote in an email, “I believe that openness and disclosure regarding my public duties are vital for media and public accountability.”
The Legislature does release records it considers “legislative records” such as expense reports, per diem payments and travel documents.
The lawsuit filed in Thurston County Superior Court names the Washington Legislature, the state Senate, the House of Representatives and all four legislative leaders.
Washington’s Public Records Act was created in 1972 by a vote of the people.