This article is drawn from the author’s news blog, The Washington Observer.
A watchdog group charged with shining a light on the Legislature’s longtime practice of eroding Washington’s public records law is on the verge of pulling its own plug.
The Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee—or Sunshine Committee for short—was created in 2007¹ to review Washington’s public records exemptions. It was conceived as an advisory body for the Legislature to ensure those exemptions don’t hinder the public interest. Its 12 members include state lawmakers from both parties, representatives of the governor, local governments, the attorney general, and our sisters and brothers in journalism.
The tricky thing about advisory bodies is they’re exactly that. No one really has to listen to them. Nowadays, the Sunshine Committee turns few heads in the Legislature and the more than 500 exemptions in the Revised Code of Washington² are proof to many that the committee isn’t much of a bulwark for transparency. Exemptions have marched onward this last session, including one with the noble intent of protecting domestic violence survivors.
Recently, the Sunshine committee came to the somber conclusion that its quarterly meetings were more trouble than they’re worth. The nine members present³ wrestled with the idea of voting to disband the body for two clear reasons: A) no one at the meeting had a clue about how to spin the news to the public that nine people in the business of truth and justice could vote to gut a government transparency committee; and B) doing so would require a final vote in the Democratic-controlled legislature, where majority Ds would turn an unpleasant spotlight on themselves.
Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, volunteered to file the bill kickstarting that process next session. His fellow committee member, Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, was among those who convinced the committee to table the issue until their August meeting to look over their options.
It remains to be seen if the Sunshine Committee can make a quorum (something it’s historically struggled to do for lack of interest) to blink itself out of existence by then. A recent Seattle Times editorial also explores how the Sunshine Committee “might be at a nadir right now.”
- At the behest of then-Attorney General and 2012 GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna.
- The Public Records Act included just 10 exemptions when voters overwhelmingly approved it in 1972.
- Lynn Kessler, Vice Chair of the committee, David Zeeck, the former publisher of The News Tribune, and Senate State Government & Elections Committee Chair Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, were all absent on Tuesday.