Government-transparency advocates say the meeting between Seattle-area political leaders and the city’s largest employer should be open to outsiders.
A wide range of Seattle-area political leaders will take part in a Friday gathering at Amazon’s campus aimed at building better ties between civic leaders and the city’s largest employer.
Seattle City Council members and representatives for Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine and Gov. Jay Inslee are among the dozens of government, educational and private-sector officials expected to attend the meeting.
The event kicks off in the afternoon with a campus tour and includes breakout sessions on issues like transportation and Seattle’s business climate.
Not invited to the confab: the media or public.
That raised eyebrows with a pair of government-transparency advocates, who said such a meeting should be open to outsiders.
When the majority of a city council’s members attend a meeting and discuss or consider public business, the forum should be subject to Washington state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), said Katherine George, a media lawyer and board member of the Washington Coalition for Open Government. Toby Nixon, the coalition’s president, agreed with that assessment.
Five of Seattle’s nine council members were named as expected participants when Amazon sent out a schedule of the day’s events and a list of participants this week — Sally Bagshaw, Bruce Harrell, M. Lorena González, Lisa Herbold and Rob Johnson.
In that case, “It would have to be advertised and opened to the public,” George said.
But of the 36 named participants, one — Harrell, the council’s president — had dropped off the list by Thursday afternoon. Amazon said he was expected to attend an evening happy hour, but not the day’s sessions.
In an interview late Thursday, Harrell said he planned to help open the meeting and then immediately excuse himself to ensure compliance with the OPMA.
That would leave four council members attending the business portion of the meeting, below the legal threshold that would trigger the public-meetings law. Amazon said the gathering would comply with the law.
Asked which council members were attending and about public access to the meeting, a spokeswoman for the City Council declined to comment except to pass on an emailed statement from Bagshaw.
“My intention for [the meeting] is to come to the table ready to align people’s interests,” said Bagshaw, whose district includes Amazon’s campus.
“I want to use data to drive results on vital topics such as equity and livability, transportation and public safety, education and jobs, and security for all.”
Amazon said it is treating the meeting as a private affair, as it does for all similar meetings with government and private-sector officials.
It was Seattle officials, before Durkan’s election as mayor, who asked for the gathering, part of a sudden reassessment of the city’s relationship with Amazon after it announced in September that it was seeking to build a second headquarters somewhere in North America.
The surprise announcement raised the prospect that an engine of the city’s economic boom might soon cool off.
In a conciliatory letter, sent in October and spearheaded by Bagshaw and State Sen. Guy Palumbo, political leaders said that to the extent Amazon’s decision “was based on Amazon feeling unwelcome in Seattle, or not being included in some of our regional decisions, we would like to hit the refresh button.”
Amazon’s vice president for public policy, Brian Huseman, replied in November, proposing a meeting at its campus.
Huseman and John Schoettler, vice president for global real estate and long the main point of contact for policymakers and city officials, will kick off Friday’s meeting with introductory remarks at 3 p.m. Breakout sessions will follow, with titles such as “providing affordability and opportunity in Seattle,” “transportation and mobility,” “the business environment,” and “education and the future of work.”
Asked whether he had heard a change in tone toward the company after announcing HQ2, Schoettler disputed that a refresh button was necessary in the first place.
“We’re not leaving Seattle; we never said we were,” Schoettler said on the sidelines of an event last month to commemorate the opening of Amazon’s spherical botanical garden.
Amazon has said it hopes to staff its second campus with up to 50,000 workers.
There are more than 40,000 Amazonians in Seattle, stretching from South Lake Union to Amazon’s Denny Triangle skyscrapers. Amazon continues to gobble up real estate in Seattle, and — scattered hiring freezes aside — continues to seek thousands of new workers in the city.
“Where else [could] we grow and expand here?” Schoettler asked, explaining some of Amazon’s thinking behind HQ2.
Even if only four Seattle City Council members attend, the meeting could be subject to the OPMA if a majority of the members of one of the council’s committees attend and the meeting involves that committee’s business, said George, the transparency watchdog.
Regardless of the reason for the meeting or whether it falls short of legal triggers for public access, she and Nixon said it would be in the public interest and in the spirit of the law for such an event to be open.
“What Amazon does is of huge interest to the public because of the economic impact,” George said. “Presumably that’s why all these elected officials are planning to attend — because it matters to their constituents what Amazon is planning.”
“It would be good public policy to let the public see or hear this discussion, regardless of whether the law requires it,” George added.