A spokesman for Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said in an email Friday the ruling means the "repeal stands because it occurred at a valid and properly noticed open public meeting."
A lawsuit contending Seattle’s City Council broke the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) in the lead-up to its abrupt repeal of the head tax on big businesses last June should be decided at trial, but the council’s public vote killing the tax will stand, a King County judge ruled Friday.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Bradshaw, as part of several rulings, rejected plaintiff James Egan’s argument for summary judgment that asked the judge to rule the evidence that’s emerged in the case proves the council broke the law, which prohibits a government body’s majority from making decisions in private. Instead, Bradshaw will allow the case to be decided at trial.
When denying Egan’s motion, Bradshaw expressed his belief that Egan’s case is solid and separately rejected the city’s informal argument to dismiss it.
“The plaintiff’s argument here is strong,” Bradshaw said.
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But regardless of what Bradshaw ultimately decides at trial, he also ruled the council’s 7-2 public vote to repeal the city’s employee-hours tax will stand. That ruling came after activist for open government Arthur West, a co-plaintiff in the case, withdrew an argument seeking to nullify the vote should he and Egan ultimately prove the council broke the meetings law.
After Friday’s hearing, West said he opted to withdraw the argument because, even if the original vote had been tossed out, the council simply could hold a do-over vote to achieve the same outcome.
“They can just reinstate (the repeal), so who gains anything?” West said. “Why waste everybody’s time?”
Dan Nolte, a spokesman for Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, said in an email Friday the ruling means the “repeal stands because it occurred at a valid and properly noticed open public meeting.”
“We were pleased to see the Court deny Mr. Egan’s motions on all the other matters today,” Nolte’s email added.
One of Egan’s arguments — that council members need more training about complying with the law — was deemed moot after the city informed Bradshaw all council members have since received more instruction.
“Evidence shows that this was either due to this litigation or a matter of dilatory coincidence,” said Bradshaw, who noted the council’s after-the-fact training may be admissible evidence at trial.
Lincoln Beauregard, Egan’s attorney, said Friday that despite the denial of his client’s motions, Bradshaw’s rulings were sound.
“We didn’t lose,” Beauregard added. “Basically, the person who is going to sit over the trial said our arguments are strong. How can we not like that?”
Should Egan and West prove their case, council members could face civil fines and the city still could be on the hook for the plaintiffs’ legal fees and costs. The men separately sued the city in June, after the council held a special meeting to repeal 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.
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 Mayor Jenny Durkan’s deputies and four council members. Through a series of phone calls and texts, Durkan’s deputies then privately lined up a majority of council members for a repeal effort, records show.
The mayor and seven of the council’s nine members later issued a joint statement justifying a reconsideration before the same seven voted to repeal the tax the next day.
The plaintiffs contend city officials’ behind-the-scenes dealings amounted to secret meetings that predetermined the public vote and broke the meetings law. Egan also separately alleges the council repeatedly has broken the law, including when council members issued news releases last year, following private discussions, about their positions on matters surrounding then-Mayor Ed Murray’s scandal over sex-abuse allegations.
City Attorney Pete Holmes and his team of private and city lawyers defending the case have denied officials broke the law, arguing that their private discussions didn’t involve a council majority or intent to take official action.
Last month, Bradshaw ordered EMC Research, the consultant that conducted the poll, to turn over polling results as part of the case. The firm has received a stay while it seeks Washington’s Court of Appeals to review the order. A hearing is set for Dec. 21.