Gov. Jay Inslee created national buzz early this week by going toe to toe with President Donald Trump at a national governors’ conference. He challenged Trump on gun policy and chided the president to try “a little less tweeting and a little more listening.”
But Inslee saved his greater show of force for fellow elected leaders back home in Olympia. Late Thursday evening, he vetoed Senate Bill 6617, legislators’ deplorable plan to exempt themselves from Washington’s Public Records Act.
Even better, the Democratic governor’s involvement helped persuade legislators to go to the bargaining table rather than embarrass themselves further by taking a vote to override his veto.
None of this would have happened but for an extraordinary outcry from average people aghast at the Legislature’s sneak attack on government transparency.
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Washingtonians won’t abide being cheated of their sovereign rights. Sometimes all they need is a nudge from their news media watchdogs.
“The public’s right to government information is one we hold dearly in Washington ...” Inslee said in a statement announcing his veto. “I believe legislators will find they can fulfill their duties while being fully transparent, just like state and local governments all across Washington.”
These are the credible words of a governor who walks the talk; Inslee long ago waived his executive privilege to withhold records from the public.
But even a less committed governor would have little choice but to issue a veto under these circumstances. It was inevitable after people flooded Inslee’s office with more than 12,500 emails and 6,300 phone calls in the last week expressing broad public condemnation of SB6617.
This sleeping giant was awakened by news organizations who filed suit against the Legislature last year for violating public records law; they joined forces again last week to rebuke legislators for trying to circumvent a judge’s order to obey the law.
Newspapers across the state, including The News Tribune, delivered a sustained drumbeat of news coverage and unleashed a barrage of front-page editorials demanding Inslee veto the bill. It’s nice to know we can still make a difference.
The combined power of the press and public opinion should never be underestimated. Great things can happen when motivated by a sincere desire to hold the people who serve us accountable and to maintain the tradition of openness in this state.
What about legislators? How much credit should they get for giving ground? Inslee praised them Thursday for approaching him to request a veto —a scenario that seems as improbable as a naughty child coming to a parent, asking to be spanked.
There’s no question, however, that some lawmakers started regretting their machinations almost as soon as this half-baked bill was rushed through the House and Senate a week ago on a swift voice vote without public hearings or debate.
Most legislators went underground after voting for the bill; they ducked journalists’ questions and released statements with scripted talking points about how the bill would actually improve transparency.
But buyer’s remorse was evident Wednesday from the one lawmaker brave enough to attend a meeting of Washington’s public records accountability committee, also known as the “Sunshine Committee.”
“I don’t think we handled that well at all,” said Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, referring to the lack of public input in shaping the bill. (Springer, a Sunshine Committee member, also serves as majority floor leader in the House.)
And what of the bill’s most toxic element: that all appeals of denied records would be reviewed by an in-house committee of legislators, not in a courtroom? Springer called it “a major misstep.”
Fortunately, rather than continuing to push a deeply unpopular bill this session, lawmakers agreed to meet with the press and other stakeholders before returning with new legislation in 2019.
”We have heard loud and clear from our constituents that they are angry and frustrated,” 57 Democrats acknowledged in letters delivered to Inslee Thursday.
Again, the governor deserves credit for brokering a deal between unified news media leaders and fragmented legislative leaders representing both chambers and both parties.
It won’t win him viral video clips on social media or a CNN interview with Anderson Cooper, like his showdown with Trump did. But it’s the kind of behind-the-scenes diplomacy for which good governors are known.
Going forward, priority No. 1 must be allowing the public to be heard on any proposed changes to our state’s cherished open records law.
The message that Inslee gave Trump on Monday comes to mind, with a slight twist:
What we need now is a little less cheating and a little more listening.