Sunshine Committee

Not this song. I confess I had the chorus of the song in my head most of the day, though.

The Sunshine Committee, formed in 2007, reviews the 300-plus exemptions to the Public Records Act of 1972.  The committee tries to reduce the number of exemptions permitted by law, citing Justice Louis D. Brandeis statement, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Yesterday I attended one of their quarterly meetings.

The thirteen-strong committee is mainly comprised of lawyers, senators and representatives. No regular folk, save one journalist. Everyone around the table wore a suit.  Some wore bow ties.  Bow ties are making a comeback, people.  You heard it here first.  I felt woefully under dressed in my short-sleeved cardigan, shell and not-clown pants.

The first item of new business surrounded the concept of protecting the privacy of child crime victims. The city lawyer from Kent, Washington brought a newly-worded exemption. She stated that at this point, the perpetrators have more anonymity. The group debated this as a few dissenting voices rose at adding more redactions, and the committee decided to revisit it at the next meeting.  Similar thing happened with police body cameras.  The city of Seattle is piloting a program right now.  In the wake of Ferguson and other police incidents, having a way to monitor police behavior jumps to the top of the public’s concerns. The cameras work fine.  However, cataloging, sorting and finding the videos themselves doesn’t come easy. No software exists for this function. It’s a cumbersome program at this time.

Near the end of the meeting, with me drowsy and drowning in legalese, they passed out copy on two bills the Sunshine Committee put through the legislature. They felt proud of the reworded exemptions. The chairman, Michael Schwab, asked the founder, Lynn Kessler, if when she founded this group 8 years ago she pictured it evolving this way.

“No,” she said, chuckling.  “I thought we’d review the exemptions and cut down on them.”

The members of the group congratulated each other on getting the bills passed.  They reminisced about the debates and how hard it was to narrow down certain aspects of the wording.

“But isn’t this exactly what you didn’t want to do? Weren’t you started to create more light, not darkness?” asked the newest member of the group, a curly-haired gal in a beige tweed suit. Beige, friends, was the color of the day.

A moment of silence.

The group agreed that their original mission was to eliminate exemptions and uphold the wording of the 1972 act:  We, the people, do not yield our sovereignty…They started defending their actions. They didn’t change their minds about the joy of having some influence in lawmaking.

“Success, to me, is elevating the public debate on these issues,” said the chairman. He’s right.

I couldn’t fault the team.  Sometimes, the things we get into don’t turn out the way we’d planned. We think a friendship with someone will go one way and it goes another way. We have children, and well, the top flies off the box. Anything can happen. Washington remains one of the most progressive states regarding open public records. It’s not an easy place to live. Continually balancing the weight of privacy vs. the public’s right to know is a noble and necessary mission. Priorities – and technologies – will change over time. May the Sunshine Committee shine for a long, long time.


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