Seattle has agreed to pay $35,000 to settle an activist’s lawsuit alleging the City Council broke Washington’s open public-meetings law in its abrupt repeal of a head tax on big businesses two years ago.
In exchange, open government activist Arthur West has agreed to drop his case and release the city and its council members from any further claims.
The agreement, under which the city admitted no wrongdoing, brings to a close more than two years of litigation spawned by the council’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering with Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office to scuttle the so-called Employee Hours Tax just a few weeks after passing it in mid-2018.
The settlement comes about six weeks after West won a key ruling in the state Court of Appeals that revived his lawsuit, which a King County judge previously had dismissed. The appeals court’s ruling sent the matter back to the trial court, finding that “sufficient evidence” existed that a majority of council members had decided to repeal the head tax before a public vote.
“The point’s been made,” West said in a phone call Monday. “I think I can declare victory on this one without any qualms, and move on to the next.”
In an email Monday, Dan Nolte, a spokesman for City Attorney Pete Holmes, said the city “concluded a settlement would cost several times less than continuing to litigate.”
“This was the prudent decision, and we’re pleased to have this matter concluded,” Nolte’s email said, adding the settlement doesn’t change the outcome of the council’s vote to repeal the head tax.
Monday’s agreement with West is the city’s second settlement over allegations that the council broke the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) around its head tax repeal.
In March 2019, the city agreed to pay $3,500 to attorney James Egan and provide council members with further training on the open-meetings law, to settle Egan’s separate suit over the matter. The amount paid by the city in that settlement equaled seven $500 civil fines that could have been levied if a court found the council members had violated the law.
West and 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 meetings 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 during a special meeting 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.
Under the agreement finalized Monday, the city must pay West $35,000 within 10 days.
West, who said in an email he had “no political ax to grind over the Seattle Amazon Head Tax debacle,” has noted his lawsuit was motivated by government transparency.
While the city did not admit breaking the open-meetings law under the settlement, “they’re paying 10 times what the maximum fines would be against their council members for violating the law,” he said.