An open government activist’s lawsuit alleging the Seattle City Council broke Washington state’s open-public-meetings law in its abrupt repeal of a city head tax in 2018 was revived Tuesday, with an appeals court tossing out a King County judge’s ruling dismissing the case.
The matter now must go back to King County Superior Court for “further proceedings,” the appeals court ruling said.
Tuesday’s ruling, written by a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals, agreed with activist Arthur West’s argument that a King County judge wrongly dismissed his lawsuit before trial last year because of a lack of evidence.
West had argued that a news release, signed by a majority of council members before the body voted to repeal the head tax, offered proof that the council violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA), which generally requires that government bodies take official actions in public.
The appeals court panel concluded the news release, which was issued by Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office and included pledges of support from seven council members to repeal the controversial business tax, amounted to compelling evidence that the trial court should have considered.
“There is sufficient evidence here from which a reasonable trier of fact could conclude that the seven members who agreed to join Mayor Durkan’s press statement …were expressing their collective decision to vote to repeal the (head tax) outside of a public meeting,” the appeals court judges wrote.
A spokesman for Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, in an email Tuesday, said the office will “be meeting soon to assess our options and discuss next steps.”
West said Tuesday he’s prepared to take the case to trial.
“If the city wants to take a hard line, I’ll fight them all the way,” he said. “But I don’t think I’ll need to. If you read that ruling, I don’t think there’s a lot of doubt that they violated the act.”
West and attorney James Egan separately sued the city in June 2018, after The Seattle Times reported that open-government advocates had raised concerns over the council’s abrupt repeal of the controversial head tax, which it unanimously had approved less than a month earlier. The tax aimed to generate an estimated $47 million annually for housing and homeless services.
Both suits contended the council broke the state’s public-transparency law with the aid of Durkan’s top deputies through a series of secret texts and phone calls in the days before members formally voted to dump the controversial tax.
Over the weekend before the meeting, members of Bring Seattle Home — a campaign formed to oppose the big-business-backed No Tax on Jobs referendum that sought to overturn the tax — privately shared unfavorable polling results on the tax with two of Durkan’s deputies and four council members. Durkan’s deputies then privately lined up a majority of council members for a repeal effort through a series of calls and texts, records show.
The mayor and seven of the council’s nine members later issued the joint public statement justifying reconsideration of the tax before the same seven voted to repeal it the next day. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda separately issued her own statement explaining why she wouldn’t join the majority. Kshama Sawant was the only member who didn’t participate in the private discussions before the public vote, according to records and interviews.
Before the court dismissed West’s case, Egan separately settled his lawsuit after the city agreed to pay $3,500 and provide council members with further training on the open-meetings law. The city’s payment equaled the amount of seven $500 civil fines that could have been levied if a court found the council members had violated the law.