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Frustrated with lack of legislative action, Washington public records committee considers its future

 Members of Washington's "Sunshine Committee" discuss the group's future during a meeting, May 23, 2023.
Video still from TVW
Members of Washington's "Sunshine Committee" discuss the group's future during a meeting, May 23, 2023.

A committee created 16 years ago to advise Washington state leaders on public records exemptions is debating its future – or whether it will even have one.

The Public Records Exemptions Accountability Committee, commonly known as the “Sunshine Committee,” reviews and recommends changes to Washington’s public records exemptions. The list of exemptions has grown dramatically since the panel was created in 2007, and its current membership says the committee is underfunded, understaffed and oft-ignored.

At a meeting Tuesday, Sunshine Committee members made clear that public records and governmental accountability are important. But they also expressed frustration that their recommendations to state leaders and proposals for open records legislation often go nowhere.

“There’s been very little in entire time this committee’s been around that passed, even when we’re just recommending getting rid of statutes that everybody agrees aren’t even used anymore or some cleanup, that doesn’t happen,” committee chair Linda Krese said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Committee member Kathy George quit in March, citing the lack of legislative action, and Krese has asked not to be reappointed when her term is up.

“I’ve enjoyed working with all of you, and I think the committee’s been very interesting. I just think it’s very frustrating that it’s a lot of work and we’re not really seeing anything coming of it,” Krese said. “And that’s really if you look at the 16-year history of this committee, not just the last few years.”

In this week’s meeting, the Sunshine Committee discussed whether to ask state lawmakers to simply disband the group in the 2024 legislative session.

State Rep. Larry Springer, a Snohomish County Democrat who serves on the Sunshine Committee, said some public records exemptions make sense, and sometimes state lawmakers aren’t invested in changing others because the changes seem miniscule.

“I’m coming to the conclusion that the exemptions that really matter – that people have major concerns about – will find their way to the legislature with or without the Sunshine Committee,” Springer said. “So I’m kind of questioning whether or not this is a good, effective use of what was a really good idea.”

Discussions about the committee’s fate come as state lawmakers are under scrutiny for their habit of claiming exemptions from the state Public Records Act. Those selective exemptions, called “legislative privilege,” are the subject of a current lawsuit in state court.

Tuesday’s Sunshine Committee meeting adjourned without a specific action or proposal. The panel is expected to revisit the question of its future in August, at which time members may draft some alternatives to keep the committee alive, or begin drafting a formal request for its abolition.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.