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May 11, 2009 at 12:55 PM

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Will Legislature open its own records?

Posted by Jim Brunner

Washington's open-records law says e-mails and other correspondence of city councils, county councils, mayors and other elected officials are presumed open to public disclosure.

But there is one big exception: the state Legislature. While certain legislative documents are public, such as payroll records and legislative committee reports, state lawmakers don't have to reveal all their e-mail correspondence and other internal communications.

At 9 a.m. tomorrow, the state's Sunshine Committee will take a look at whether the Legislature's exemption should be repealed.

Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr, who chairs the panel, said he supports repeal of the Legislature's exemption.

"If we're going to have open government and we're committed to open government, it should be open government at all levels," Carr said. (Some legislative documents may remain shielded at any rate, he noted, because of a "legislative privilege" generally recognized by the courts.)

Of course, the Sunshine Committee can't actually change the law. It only makes recommendations to the Legislature.

That will leave it up to state legislators to decide whether they want to abide by the same openness rules as local governments.

That may be an uphill battle.

When I contacted Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, a member of the Sunshine Committee, he seemed pretty hostile to the idea that the Legislature get rid of its own exemption.

Kline, an attorney and former newspaper reporter, said he should be able to guarantee anonymity to constituents and others who contact him.

"People who write us expect some degree of anonymity. We're not going to hear the straight scoop if a source hears that getting a hold of me is different than getting a hold of you," Kline said.

Kline said he was irritated with media-industry groups who have pushed for the repeal of the legislative exemption after getting their own reporter shield law passed.

Maybe the exemption should actually be expanded, Kline said, so that e-mails of city and county councils are also shielded from disclosure.

"Why should we have any greater privilege?" he said.

The Sunshine Committee meets at Tuesday in the John A. Cherberg Building, Conference Room ABC. Here is the agenda.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.