Birthdates must stay in public records

The Washington Senate voted last weekend to redact the birthdates of government employees from public record disclosures.
The Washington Senate voted last weekend to redact the birthdates of government employees from public record disclosures.

In what’s becoming an all-too-common assault on open government, the Washington Senate voted last weekend in favor of legislation that aims to redact the birthdates of government employees from public record disclosures.

Supporters of the bill cast themselves as defenders of privacy. They argue keeping birthdates under wraps would protect public servants from identity theft and other threats.

Testimony at a Senate hearing last month brought out scary stories about hackers, crooks and stalkers -- tales that appeal to emotion, not logic.

Logic says deleting birthdates doesn’t deter unsavory characters from doing harm; it isn’t enough information to open credit accounts or commit other acts of fraud.

All this exemption would do is create space for public employees to duck scrutiny from the news media, public interest groups and other watchdogs. Bad actors, such as school bus drivers with DUI records or cops with domestic violence in their past, could slip through the cracks much easier.

Majority Senate Democrats, who passed the bill on a party-line vote, need to come clean on Senate Bill 6079 and call it what it is: one more tactic in a long proxy war between public employee unions and the Freedom Foundation, a conservative group that makes no apologies for being anti-union.

Emboldened by a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said certain government employees don’t have to pay union dues, the foundation set out on a new mission: Find state employees and spread the word.

By matching names and birthdates, the Olympia-based group obtained mailing addresses of members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Reports surfaced of paid canvassers showing up at workers’ homes giving anti-union spiels. Thousands of SEIU members subsequently halted their payments.

In 2016, The SEIU fought back with a lawsuit. In November, the state Court of Appeals ruled largely in the union’s favor, saying state workers have a constitutional right to privacy.

The Freedom Foundation appealed to the state Supreme Court and is awaiting a response.

Unions also found victory in a 2016 ballot initiative. Much like the current SB 6079, I-1501 was a Trojan horse; it was billed as a way to prevent fraud against the elderly, but it chipped away at transparency by exempting “certain information” about in-home caregivers and clients from state public-disclosure laws.

It’s unfortunate that Democrats are willing to weaken the state Public Records Act in order to score points on the union side. They shouldn’t need reminders that the public welfare is inextricably tied to public accountability.

In 2003, Seattle Times reporters were able to identify 159 girls’ sports coaches in Washington who’d been fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct; 89 of the perpetrators continued to coach or teach.

Fortunately, Times journalists were able to track the offenders by cross-referencing names and birthdates in public records. If the House approves SB 6079, and Gov. Jay Inslee signs it into law, many future attempts to investigate public officials wouldn’t get far.

Just having an employee’s name “is virtually useless in terms of trying to ascertain someone’s identity,” said Rowland Thompson, executive director of Allied Newspapers of Washington, in testimony to a Senate panel.

While some may question whether special-interest groups are exploiting the Public Records Act for political gain, we maintain access to public information is paramount; it’s what separates a democracy from a regime.

Having a clear window into government operations is a basic tenet of freedom. Exempting birthdates from public record disclosures means any disciplinary measure against a public employee has a high probability of being buried indefinitely.

What really needs to be buried is this proposal. We’re counting on the Washington House to send it the dead-letter file of bad bills, where it belongs.