McKenna and Inslee promise more access to government records
Gubernatorial candidates Rob McKenna and Jay Inslee both say they would not invoke executive privilege to withhold documents from the Governor's Office. Gov. Chris Gregoire has claimed that exemption to block release of a variety of records.
Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee both pledge, if elected, to open public access to more government records.
How each would fulfill that promise differs, except in one significant way: Both gubernatorial hopefuls say they would decline to claim a special exception to disclosure for the Governor's Office.
Inslee and McKenna said they would not invoke the executive privilege that Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, has used to block the release of records on everything from Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement to tribal gambling compacts, judicial appointments, even rules for marijuana.
The Freedom Foundation, a libertarian-oriented think tank that sued Gregoire over her use of privilege, says the privilege claim is an assertion of power that is not delineated in the Constitution or state law.
Later this year, the state Supreme Court is expected to take up the foundation's appeal of a lower court's ruling that favored the governor.
"From what I know right now, I would not intend to exercise executive privilege unless or until it was delineated by the Legislature or a vote of the people," Inslee said in an interview, adding that he did not know all the details of the legal case. "What we're talking about is the public trust in the system and that should be jealously guarded. ... Close calls go in my book to public disclosure."
McKenna, the state attorney general, is defending Gregoire's claim to privilege at the Supreme Court, but he flatly said he would not claim privilege to shield the release of records as governor.
Instead, McKenna said he would rely on existing records law and any exemptions written into it. He declined to elaborate and said he could not talk about the Freedom Foundation case itself.
But McKenna did pledge that, if elected, he would go further than his predecessor. "I'll be appointing people to agencies and I'll require greater transparency and compliance" as a condition of appointment to jobs, he said.
Criticism on both sides
In the privilege case, Gregoire is asserting that her prerogative to protect documents is inherent in the constitutional guarantee of separation of powers and allows her advisers greater candor. A Thurston County judge agreed last year she had the right.
Michael Reitz, the Freedom Foundation's general counsel, said news of the leading gubernatorial candidates' position is encouraging.
"That's significantly different from Gov. Gregoire's position," Reitz said.
The agreement on not invoking privilege is one of the few similarities between two candidates who differ in terms of background and the way each might make government more transparent if elected.
McKenna has worked to burnish a record as an advocate for open-records law at the state level, while Inslee cites numerous bills he voted for and instances where he took a stand for government transparency, disclosure or protecting whistle-blowers.
Both campaigns have made an issue of the other's transparency — or more to the point, lack of it.
Inslee's spokesman said McKenna might have spurred creation of a Sunshine Committee that shed light on exemptions in the Public Records Act, but said the committee has not stemmed the addition of new exemptions into the law.
McKenna criticizes Inslee for the way he reported transfers of money from his federal congressional campaign account into his state account — making it hard to tell at first whose congressional donations were being transferred. Inslee said he was following the advice of the state Public Disclosure Commission, which admitted it initially gave bad advice.
What McKenna's done
Of the two, McKenna has the most visible record on disclosure at the state level. The former King County councilman took office as attorney general in January 2005 and, not long after, created the first public-records ombudsman's position at the agency.
He asked the ombudsman to draw up rules for how agencies should disclose records and to give other guidance to agencies and local governments.
McKenna also won legislative approval for the Sunshine Committee, which reviews and recommends changes to the 300-plus exemptions already in the state Public Records Act.
A critic, state Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, who quit the Sunshine Committee two weeks ago in a protest, says McKenna has used the committee "to pander" to newspaper publishers appointed to the panel, and says the Attorney General's Office "has taken an extreme role in favor of transparency over privacy."
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and a McKenna supporter, says the key point is that exemptions are now getting reviewed.
McKenna cites other legislative accomplishments, among them passage of a law that he says corrected a broad exemption in the records act that resulted after a state Supreme Court ruling in a Seattle Center Monorail case. The legislation bars an agency from rejecting a records request simply because too many records were sought.
"I would say I have done more to promote transparency and strengthen state-government open-records practice than any other official," McKenna said in an interview.
But McKenna also raised the eyebrows of open-government advocates with a law that lets agencies like the Department of Corrections go to court to block an inmate's record requests if they are part of a pattern of abuse or harassment.
Open-government advocates eventually dropped their opposition. But Rowland Thompson of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington warned at the time that local governments might seek the same tool to fight against records requests from citizen activists.
This year, Thompson says, local governments did just that, although they did not succeed in the Legislature.
What Inslee's done
Inslee, who resigned his 1st District seat in Congress earlier this year, calls himself an advocate for transparency, too. Inslee says he voted 18 times to increase transparency, to require information be disclosed on lobbyists, and to support other such bills in the U.S. House.
"I have been a vigorous advocate for it at the federal level," he said. "I voted to put all federal emails in a searchable database. I called for federal contracts to be trackable in a format that explains what the contracts were for. ... We've increased the disclosure of campaign contributions — for gifts."
Inslee voted in 2002 for the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance disclosure law and co-sponsored the more recent DISCLOSE Act on campaign donations, the Stealth Lobbyist Disclosure Act of 2007 and the STOCK Act barring insider trading by congressional members and staffers.
His campaign released a list of other legislation that he voted for — everything from a 1994 limit on accepting gifts, which passed the House, to a 2007 bill that strengthened the House member gifts ban and a failed 2011 bill that aimed to publish which members of Congress were in the federal-employee health-care plan.
He also voted to strengthen whistle-blower protections.
Leaders of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan advocacy group that monitors Congress for transparency, said the organization looks beyond a lawmaker's championing of pro-transparency legislation. It wants to see members voluntarily posting their earmarks, personal finances or a calendar listing planned meetings with lobbyists.
A recent check of Inslee's old congressional website, which underwent changes about the time he left Congress, indicated that Inslee didn't take those steps. When asked specifically about why he didn't post his list of earmark requests, Inslee said he always reported his requests to the House clerk as required.