State Sen. Adam Kline abruptly quit the state’s “Sunshine Committee” last week, saying in a letter that the panel that advises the Legislature on open government matters lacks balance or a voice for privacy concerns.
Kline, a Seattle Democrat, had questioned whether the committee had a future last August when its members struggled for consensus. He had clashed in the past over committee issues including suggestions from open-government advocates to consider limits on attorney client privilege for government lawyers.
Few recommendations from the panel – formally known as the Public Records Exemption Accountability Committee – are ever adopted by the Legislature, and the list of exemptions in state law has grown since Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna won legislative approval to create it in 2007 as a check against too much secrecy.
Retired Superior Court judge Michael Schwab of Yakima chairs the panel and said by phone Friday that he had only looked over Kline’s letter and regretted the news.
“I haven’t had a chance to totally digest it yet. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him about it,” Schwab said, adding: “I’m very sorry that he has resigned from the committee. He was a very productive member of the committee since its inception. He’s a very smart guy and active on the committee.”
In his letter, Kline said: “The sad fact is that there is not an equal but opposite representation on the Committee for the public’s interest in personal privacy.” He indicated in a recent interview that the panel could use someone like a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union.
But Rowland Thompson, lobbyist for northwest daily newspapers and a committee member, said the 13-member committee has 10 members from government agencies or the Legislature and just three with ties to newspapers. He said some of the government members are strong advocates for keeping records secret.
Kline’s protest appeared to be more about his perception of the direction the panel is going.
He cited a recent committee vote to look into juror questionnaires – which The Freedom Foundation, a hard-to-the-right think tank in Olympia, asked the committee to explore. Kline was the lone foe in the 8-1 vote.
Schwab and Thompson said the committee vote merely said the issue will be put on the committee’s agenda, and that it would be looked into.
Kline saw a dark motive by TFF, which he said has been involved in voter-suppression activities in the past, to use juror information to create a scandal.
“While couched in innocent terms as an enhancement of the public’s right to know, the genuine purpose of this item is to create a public scandal about illegal aliens serving on Washington juries, and use it to advance legislation requiring photo identification for voters, and/or legislation requiring citizenship for drivers licenses,” he wrote.
Kline said conservative industrialists Charles and David Koch, who have been financiers of the tea party movement, helped finance groups that have furthered “a xenophobic campaign against immigrants generally.”
Michael Reitz, general counsel for the foundation, said in an email that Kline’s claims were “ludicrous.”
“If an individual is getting out of jury duty by claiming to not be a citizen, but that individual is nevertheless registered to vote, there is a public interest in evaluating whether voter fraud is occurring,” Reitz wrote. He added that “Sen. Kline’s resignation from the Sunshine Committee is disappointing. The committee does important work to give the public access to government records, and Kline’s take-my-marbles-and-go-home reaction could damage the committee’s agenda.”
Reitz denied the dispute is about illegal immigration but said “obviously many individuals are legitimately in the state but are not U.S. citizens. Voter suppression should not be tolerated, but neither should voter fraud.”
Kline recently told The Olympian he thinks the panel should include someone with a record of advocating privacy interests, such as a member of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Kline’s vacancy on the committee would be filled by a member of the Senate Democratic caucus. It was not immediately clear which lawmaker might be appointed, a spokeswoman said.
Schwab, the committee chairman, said the jury is out on what impact Kline’s move will have on the committee’s work.
“I think the committee is a constant work in progress, and it needs to maintain the high ground and high focus in order to be perceived as a credible and productive body,” Schwab said. “Something like this – people will wonder whether or not we are fulfilling our mission or that there is an imbalance that needs to be rectified.”
The committee has been dogged with complaints that its recommendations never go anywhere in the Legislature, and that gave rise last summer to questions about whether the committee could see itself abolished.
“That’s still an issue,” Schwab said. “We have to prove ourselves.’’email@example.com 360-753-1688 www.theolympian.com/politicsblog