Seattle’s mayor and one City Council member are proposing a ban on campaign activities at or near city-sponsored events.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen proposed legislation Tuesday that would strictly prohibit election activities near city-sponsored events.
The officials didn’t name Councilmember Kshama Sawant in a news release about their bill, but the proposal was clearly aimed at her.
The socialist member of the City Council caused a stir last month when some of her supporters gathered signatures and recruited volunteers for her re-election campaign downstairs from a town-hall meeting that Sawant was co-hosting at City Hall for the council.
The event ticked off Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, who called it a “political rally designed to inflame emotions and get one council member re-elected,” and who said it had violated “both the spirit and letter of our ethics rules.”
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In response to Bagshaw’s comments and an anonymous complaint to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, a spokesman for Sawant’s campaign said he’d checked with the commission beforehand and had come away with the impression that the election activity would be permitted so long as Sawant and her council staff members weren’t directly involved.
Seattle’s ethics code forbids the use of city stationery, postage, vehicles, equipment, and staff for election purposes. The new legislation would add, “No elected official, nor the official’s agent, shall engage in campaign activities at, or adjacent to, any official city public event that is organized by that elected official or any employee of the official’s office.”
“We want to have a bright line that you can’t publicize an event, like a city forum on housing, using city resources, and then have it at City Hall and then have materials out promoting a particular campaign,” Rasmussen said in an interview Tuesday.
When asked about the bill’s connection to Sawant, a spokesman for the mayor said, “There seems to be some confusion over whether or not political activity related to official events organized by city staff is currently prohibited.”
“There certainly won’t be any confusion after this new language is adopted,” added the spokesman, Jason Kelly.
Sawant hit back Tuesday afternoon, questioning the bill’s constitutionality.
“Seattleites expect elected officials to be focusing on the housing crisis facing our city, as was seen by the huge turnout of 550 people at the (town-hall meeting) demanding rent control,” she said in a statement.
“Instead, some politicians are prioritizing legislation to effectively silence free-speech activity of volunteers in grass-roots campaigns,” Sawant added.
“I also have serious concerns that this ill-conceived and politically motivated ordinance is an unconstitutional restriction of free speech of ordinary people, as distinct from the activities of elected officials and their staff, which is currently regulated.”
The bill raises the problem of whether an elected official should or can be expected to police how his or her supporters express themselves. Rasmussen said an official should head off inappropriate activity.
The mayor’s office consulted with the city attorney’s office in drafting the bill, said Viet Shelton, another Murray spokesman.