An egregious scheme in the city of SeaTac is a reminder why the state needs its watchdogs and their tools.
WATCH out, Washington. We are entering a golden age of municipal malfeasance.
In recent months — just in King County — Kent officials illegally sold off a public park to developers in secret, the Black Diamond City Council treated the state Open Public Meetings Act like a soiled napkin, and a court ruled that SeaTac’s staff colluded to steal a parcel of land from local business people.
Those are just the ones we know of. Daylighting these instances of misconduct or even corruption require watchdogging by the media and a lawful adherence to Washington’s public-transparency laws. Both seem to be on the wane. And we’re all the worse for it.
The latest diminishment of public trust comes in SeaTac. A King County Superior Court judge recently ordered the city to pay $18.3 million for a corrupt plan, hatched by city staff, to scuttle a park-and-fly parking garage near the airport. A blistering critique by Judge Richard McDermott, first reported by The Highline Times, found a “pattern of deception” in the city’s efforts to kill off the development plan, then buy the land at a bargain price, based in part on the hopes of driving off Somali immigrants.
Governments “are supposed to represent us,” McDermott said in court. “And because of that, they have a duty of honesty and transparency. The city violated that duty so many times I’ve lost count. … Quite frankly, the actions of the city of SeaTac in this case are unexplainable and totally unacceptable.”
The developers, Gerry and Kathryn Kingen, didn’t realize they were being wronged until they’d already lost their 4-acre plot of very developable land. When they filed a public-records request, SeaTac took a year to fulfill it — and even then withheld smoking-gun documents that proved the conspiracy, according to McDermott.
There are fewer watchdogs looking for these outrages. South King County was once served by a daily paper and by bureaus of Seattle newspapers. These communities now are served by blogs and weekly papers, and the municipalities are exploiting that fact.
Watchdogs — citizens and journalists alike — still have a useful tool in the state’s strong laws mandating open meetings and access to public records. If cities like SeaTac ignore requests, they face fines. If meetings are held in secret, city council members must pay.
Those vital tools are constantly under attack in the state Legislature, most often by cities and counties who trot down to Olympia to describe how overburdened they are by superfluous requests for records.
The Legislature next year will undoubtedly consider, again, watering down the Public Records Act. This time, SeaTac’s egregious shredding of transparency should be Exhibit A in why those laws are necessary.
Information in this editorial, originally published July 28, 2016, was corrected Aug. 1, 2016. A previous version of this editorial incorrectly described when city staff colluded to steal a parcel of land from local business people. The city took the land in 2009. A court ruled against SeaTac in July.