Rules should apply to lawmakers, too
Sunshine Week is over, but the Legislature is still in session. And too many clouds still obscure the light.
Much of the attention regarding government transparency this legislative session has focused understandably enough on the executive branch, given the abrupt departure of Gov. John Kitzhaber and the questions raised about emails he sent and received during his time in office. Lawmakers are expected to consider bills to speed up disclosure of those emails and others like them, as well they should.
But while they consider getting tough with other elected officials, legislators should consider their own openness — or lack thereof.
While the Legislature is in session, lawmakers are exempt from the open records laws that apply to the rest of state government.
Most meetings are public. Floor sessions of the House and Senate and committee hearings are open to the public. Meetings of the Democratic and Republican caucuses — where lawmakers discuss strategy with members of their own party — are not required to be public, although the Senate Democrats have chosen to open their sessions to reporters in the past.
But the emails of legislators are not subject to the public records laws that apply to other state officials, including the governor. Lawmakers can use private email accounts if they like — the practice that got former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in hot water recently.
Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, who has become the self-appointed champion of open-government legislation this session, is drafting a bill to require legislators to respond to public records requests during sessions, and to move emails from private accounts to state servers. It's not clear whether the bill will pass — the Legislature has plenty on its plate this year, and Parrish is in the minority party. What's more, legislators, regardless of party affiliation, are not fond of passing new restrictions that apply to them personally.
But public confidence in state government, which wasn't exactly robust to begin with, suffered a blow from the resignation of the governor and ethical questions surrounding his fiancée's role in the administration. While strengthening rules that apply to the executive branch, declaring that legislators must follow the same public records laws as everyone else would go a long way toward restoring some of that trust.