Remodeling restricts access to lawmakers - Tight quarters leave no room for public

Richard Roesler
The Spokane-Review Staff writer

OLYMPIA, WA - 1/14/03_ It may still be "the People's House," but the people will have to watch it on TV.

With state lawmakers evicted from the state Capitol by a $100 million renovation, it's gotten a bit harder for citizens to visit some lawmakers, and all but impossible for the general public to sit in and watch the House or Senate at work.

For decades, citizens have been able to sit in the Capitol's balcony galleries and peer down at senators or representatives as they made floor speeches, voted on key bills, played computer games on their state laptops, or dozed off.

No more. The House of Representatives is shoehorned into a temporary building atop an old parking lot. The Senate is squeezed into a makeshift chamber in what used to be the state library building. Neither has an area for the general public. Gone are the galleries full of gawking schoolchildren, or union members in a sea of green shirts, or wide-eyed tour groups. Lawmakers won't return to the Capitol until 2005.

"There's no public viewing," said Don Hurst, assistant sergeant-at-arms of the Senate. "They have hearing rooms set aside so people can watch it on big-screen TV."

That loss of public access is not a good thing, said Rowland Thompson, a lobbyist for a newspaper industry group. TV coverage can distort what's happening, he said, perhaps by focusing attention on an impassioned speaker who is, in fact, talking to a largely empty room.

"No city council could say, `We're not letting people in the chamber, you can see it on TV,"' he said. "No other public entity in the state could do this."

With students unable to watch the Legislature firsthand or tour the Capitol building, Spokane's St. Charles School decided not to make its annual trip to Olympia. Instead, the school is making an eighth-grade field trip to the Olympic Park Institute, a nature learning center at Olympic National Park.

"It was kind of customary," said Principal Tom Feldhausen. "It was a situation where they could see government in action."

Legislative leaders tried their best to put a good face on the tight quarters Monday as they opened the legislative session. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, called the temporary building "the people's portable."

"Bear with us a little bit today, because of the change," said Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who presides over the state Senate. He pointed out that Britain's Parliament requires two sword-lengths in the aisle between opposing lawmakers.

"We were unable to provide for two sword-lengths," Owen said.

The Legislature's tight office quarters also make it harder to visit the offices of some lawmakers, as a contingent of home-health-care workers found out Monday afternoon. They trooped in the door of "Mod 1," the smallest of the new temporary buildings, to drop in on Rep. Brian Hatfield, a Democrat from the Olympic Peninsula.

They didn't even get within eyeshot of the office. A House security guard halted them just inside the door of Mod 1, and had them wait there while he conferred with Hatfield's office staff. An assistant came out and told them Hatfield wasn't available.

"It was easier last year," said Lorenzo Bordea, a Vancouver home-health worker. "We had no problems then."

"The heck with the people," said Chehalis home-health worker Kris Darby.

"They're elected officials," said Thompson. "You should be able to see what's going on in their offices, or who they're interacting with. If there's one state building that should be open, it's these."

In addition to the TV rooms, where people can watch House and Senate floor action via TVW, Washington's public-affairs cable-TV channel, the Legislature has also added some high-tech ways to try to improve public input. Other computer screens in each TV room, for example, will show which bills are being worked on. Workers have also set up several computer stations where members of the public can send an e-mail message to lawmakers. And people can still send e-mails or leave free phone messages for lawmakers.

"We're trying to give as much access to the public as we can, given the limits of modular buildings," said Sharon Hayward, director of facilities for the House of Representatives.

"Trying to keep the public dialed in is going to be one of the challenges of the session," said Rep. Alex Wood, D-Spokane. "I think it will work OK, with a little patience."


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