With revelations of secret deliberations, Seattle is providing a timely demonstration of why the public must have broad access to public records, so it can see who is influencing policy and how officials are conducting the public's business.
Seattle’s elected leaders must be held accountable for their flagrant disregard of the state Open Public Meetings Act, which shows disdain for people they’re supposed to represent.
This debacle was revealed in text messages obtained by The Seattle Times under the state Public Records Act and through one of two lawsuits accusing the council of violating the open-meetings law.
Mayor Jenny Durkan and city council members deliberated the controversial head-tax in secret conversations with billionaire activist Nick Hanauer and David Rolf, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 775. The text messages show they were the rich and powerful ones holding sway at City Hall, not Amazon.com.
Despite widespread opposition to the head tax, Durkan and the council pressed on until Hanauer and Rolf decided it was a lost cause, based on polling results shared in those secret conversations. Then city officials lined up votes to abandon the head tax and neuter a pending referendum against it, before the next public meeting.
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“Their goal is to have unity on a repeal and that would mean triangulating any of the core 4 who aren’t in agreement,” Council member M. Lorena González’ legislative aide Cody Reiter said in a text exchange with her.
Courts should throw the book at Washington’s largest city, to affirm the importance Washingtonians place on open government and provide guidance for other municipalities.
This should further prompt Seattle residents to encourage new candidates to run for City Council next year, when seven of nine seats are on the ballot.
Meanwhile, state legislators, who are now grudgingly addressing their failures to abide by the Public Records Act, should also take note. Seattle is providing a timely demonstration of why the public must have broad access to public records, so it can see who is influencing policy and how officials are conducting the public’s business.
Seattle officials, meanwhile, must restore trust with transparency — and not dodge information requests because they’re getting sued to be more open. That includes immediately disclosing the polling results that influenced their head-tax flip-flop.
Recall that Washington created strong open-meetings, public-records and campaign-disclosure laws in the early 1970s because citizens were fed up with corruption and secret dealings in Seattle and at other levels of government. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.
The meetings law says that elected officials’ actions must be “taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.” Secret conference calls and text messages with special interests are just as offensive today as backroom huddles over cigars and scotch were in 1971, when the law took effect.
We need to once again share the opening to the meetings and records act:
“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”
Perhaps that should be chiseled over the doors at Seattle City Hall.