As the battle continues between state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the federal government over the closure and sale of the National Archives facility at Seattle, on Monday Ferguson filed an 87-page lawsuit to stop the sale.
He was joined by a long list of 28 tribes and tribal entities, historic preservation groups and museums in the suit filed in the U. S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
Ferguson is clearly angry at how the decision was made by the little-known, five-person Public Buildings Reform Board, charged with finding excess federal property and putting it up for bids.
“What pisses me off is that a bunch of federal bureaucrats 3,000 miles away don’t have any interest in hearing from the communities impacted,” he said. “I don’t know why they’re making these decisions deep in the bowels of our federal government. They don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t give a damn.”
He is suing the federal government for planning to sell the archives here “without prior notice” and “scatter its invaluable, irreplaceable, original historical records to facilities in Kansas City, Missouri, and Riverside, California.”
He is also suing because, he says, the feds “failed to follow” the statute being used to sell the property as they didn’t consult with tribes and others with an interest in the archives. Ferguson plans a virtual public hearing Jan. 19 to allow for input.
Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, which is part of the lawsuit, said, “I understand the building is old and it probably wasn’t maintained very well. But it all seems like it’s being hurried along. There’s going to be a cost no matter where they move it.”
The 10-acre Sand Point site contains the history of 272 federally recognized tribes. It contains the drafts of tribal treaties. They are important because some crucial items might have been listed in early drafts, but by mistake not included in the final versions.
The archives here have about a million boxes of documents. It is the repository of all federal records generated in the Pacific Northwest, and includes military, land, court, tax and census papers.
The archives have been digitizing documents, said Susan Karren, director of the Seattle facility. But, she said, “a minimal amount of the records” were in electronic form.
Ferguson said there was urgency to the lawsuit because on Oct. 1, the board said it was rushing through the sale.
The Seattle facility is one of 12 surplus properties identified by the board. The original plan was to sell them individually, which would have given opponents until July 2021 to fight it.
Then the board announced that “given the impact of COVID” and “the commercial real estate market,” the properties would be bundled and sold in one single portfolio.
Adam Bodner, executive director of the buildings board, said he expects the General Services Administration to award the contract to a real estate broker in January. He had no comment on Monday’s lawsuit.
Ferguson said he will ask the judge for “injunctive relief” on the sale of the Sand Point property, meaning there would be irreparable harm should the lawsuit linger in court. By then, he said, the property could be sold.
“I’m confident we’ll get a decision no later than February,” Ferguson said.
He described a pattern of obfuscation from the board and other federal agencies in getting answers.
His office ended up suing federal agencies to answer Freedom of Information Act requests for public records, and said it received “only a minimal amount of documents.”
Some were highly redacted.
Ferguson said two emails were provided by the Office of Management and Budget concerning the sale of some of the 12 facilities. They had an attachment listing objections to the sales by agency employees themselves.
The attachments were blacked out, marked, “red flag objections.”
A letter from the OMB cited an exemption protecting “pre-decisional deliberative communication, the disclosure of which would inhibit the frank and candid exchange of views that is necessary for effective government decision-making . . .”
Another time, in July 2020, nearly six months after another public records request, the board said it would cost $65,000 to pay for redacting the documents. The board then withdrew that demand, but asked the court to give it until March 31 to produce the documents.
Ferguson said that by then, the sale could be a done deal.
The board has said it is simply trying to save taxpayers money by selling the property.
It listed two money items:
It listed annual operating and maintenance costs of $356,763 for the 187,752 square-foot building. But that’s in line with industry figures used by property management firms.
The board also listed $2.4 million in deferred maintenance costs and $2.4 million in estimated future capital expenditures, although it didn’t itemize how it came about those figures.
In a January 2020 Seattle Times story, board member Angela Styles said the building’s wood ceiling would need to be replaced because it’s a fire hazard.
However, in its own review of the building, the archives concluded it was “compliant with criteria for fire-suppression, appropriate fire-rated construction, and life-safety.”
Styles also was quoted in that story as saying the board was “not required by statute to seek public input first.”
When the facility closes, instead of being able to drive to Sand Point to look up tribal records, Sullivan and others will have to fly to Missouri or California.
“The whole thing is really weird to me. I don’t understand their motivation,” said Sullivan.