Did Washington's Senate Republicans allow a secret, arguably improper meeting that helped reinstate privileges to Sen. Pam Roach? Or are the Senate Democrats whiny crybabies because they no longer control the playpen?
Both stories emerged Wednesday during and after an unsuccessful attempt by Senate Democrats to appoint Democratic Lt. Gov. Brad Owen as chairman of the Senate Facilities and Operations Committee. The Democrats lost 25-24 along the fault line separating them from 23 Republicans and two Democrats, Sens. Rodney Tom of Medina and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch, who have formally allied with the GOP.
The committee handles personnel and other internal administrative for the Senate and its staff. It has played a critical role in restoring Roach, a senator from Auburn, to the Republican Caucus, where her support was needed to give the Republicans and the two Democrats enough votes to control the Senate. The importance of the committee this year is in striking contrast with the past: Minority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle, chaired the committee years ago, calling it "simply the most boring committee to sit on in this Legislature."
Roach had lost her Republican Caucus access in 2010 because she had verbally abused Senate staff members. When Tom and the Republicans engineered their takeover of the Senate, they needed Roach as the 25th vote to control the 49-member body. They appointed Roach chairwoman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, and ensured that her access to the caucus was restored. Republicans on the Facilities and Operations Committee also started an investigation into who leaked documents to the Associated Press that outlined Roach verbally attacking a Republican staffer in March 2012.
With Tom and Sheldon forming a "Majority Caucus Coalition" with the Republicans, the Facilties and Operations Committee has four Republicans and three Democrats with Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, as the new chairman.
On Wednesday, Democratic floor leader Sen. David Frockt of Seattle complained that, in a closed session Jan. 15, the committee blocked reporters from attending and returned caucus privileges to Sen. Roach, R-Auburn, on a secret 4-3 vote. State law generally requires that government bodies conduct all votes in public, but the Legislature and its committees have generally been understood to be exempt from the requirement.
Frockt and Benton declined to discuss specific Roach-related issues raised in the closed meeting, citing confidentiality rules.
Entering Wednesday, Democrats originally sought a three-to-three split on this committee, and later suggested four Republicans and three Democrats to reflect the Republican majority. But the Democrats wanted Owen as chairman instead of Benton. Owen a conservative Democrat who presides over the Senate when it is on the floor, "calls both sides equally on their bull...," Frockt said.
Benton said about the Jan. 15 Facilities and Operations Committee meeting: "There was never a vote conducted in secret. Absolutely no. None." He said the meeting was a closed session for the committee to confer with legal counsel, and only consulting was done.
However, Frockt disagreed: "Absolutely, there was a vote taken. ... It was not done by acclamation."
Meanwhile, Benton said, "The Legislature is not subject to the Open Public Meetings Act." He added that with one exception years ago, the Facilities and Operations Committee meetings have always been closed to the public.
The Washington state Attorney General's office, headed by Democrat Bob Ferguson, agreed with Benton that the act does not apply to the Legislature and the Legislature's committees.
Murray argued that the meetings should be open: "We deserve the same level of scrutiny (as local-level governments that must comply with the open meetings act)." He also described the Republican investigation into the leak to Associated Press as "obsessive."
Benton and Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said the Democrats were griping merely because they lost control of what happens in the Senate's committees, including the Facilities and Operations Committee.
"Unfortunately, our colleagues are not accepting their new role in this Senate," Rivers said.
Benton added: "It's really a case of sour grapes."