Holding closed-door talks on contentious topics such as taxes and zoning may be easier than inviting in the disagreeable public. But now Seattle finds itself stalled in an atmosphere of distrust.
I see the folks down at City Hall are again in the news for meeting in secret.
The latest is when the City Council, at the behest of Mayor Jenny Durkan, suddenly realized that their unanimously passed head tax was in fact pretty much unanimously loathed. So rather than convene to consider what to do in contemplative fashion, they freaked out and formed a cell phone flash mob — which one critic called “an illegal serial meeting” — in which they privately agreed they would cancel the tax the following day.
The quote above is from the Washington Coalition for Open Government, a local nonprofit group. It’s got its work cut out for it, what with our state Legislature racing to exempt itself from the public records act last session, and Seattle’s latest bypass around the open-meetings act.
But there was another episode that, to me anyway, seems just as concerning. Namely, the closed-door talks that were held over the summer to forge a compromise on the city’s plan to allow denser buildings in more than two dozen Seattle neighborhoods.
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Our City Hall reporter, Daniel Beekman, found that officials from both the mayor’s office and City Council met secretly in a formal negotiation with groups that have appealed the “grand bargain,” which is the city’s plan to upzone thousands of lots of land in return for affordable housing payments.
The goal was to hash out a deal on how to move ahead on the stalled density plans. No settlement has been reached. But because all parties signed confidentiality agreements, we have no idea even what was proposed.
Toby Nixon, the president of the Washington Coalition of Open Government, sighed when I told him about it.
“This is the exact kind of thing that should be done in the open, not in secret mediation talks,” he said. “It’s public policy they were talking about, one that involves the zoning of city neighborhoods.”
It’s understandable that settlements involving the privacy rights of employees — a discrimination case, for example — would be worked out behind closed doors. But this is a zoning policy spread across 27 neighborhoods.
Any deal reached would still have to be approved by the City Council, in public. But deals have a way of becoming all-or-nothing packages.
“The city could potentially be conceding major points in negotiation outside of public view,” Nixon said.
Ironically the main reason the neighborhood groups appealed the density plan in the first place was a sense that it was hatched in secrecy, back in 2015.
“The one fact that led to this appeal is this: The former Mayor and a small group of developers agreed to what is now known as MHA (Mandatory Housing Affordability) in a ‘Grand Bargain’ signed behind closed doors,” the Wallingford Community Council wrote in its appeal.
But then they met in secret to try to resolve their concerns about how a plan was drafted in secret?
Toby Thaler, of the Fremont Neighborhood Council, was in the closed-door sessions (it’s just a coincidence that everyone in this story is named Toby). He conceded it put the neighborhood groups in “a very awkward position,” but he also defended it.
“We weren’t negotiating the actual zoning behind closed doors, like the developers did,” he said. “We were just trying to get the city to do the process right.”
He said he didn’t like the confidentiality clause, but it was sold as necessary because if participants “went off and blabbed” to the media, it could upset the talks.
That’s what the mayor’s advisory committee argued when it met in secret back in 2015. When I wrote that those meetings should have been public, the chairs of the committee responded that it would have been too hard to reach consensus. “Sorry, Westneat,” they wrote, none of it would have worked “if you were in the room.”
OK, but three years on, the plan’s stalled. It may be too late to take advantage of an historic housing boom. May I suggest it didn’t work out that great without the public in the room?
The central idea is a fine one — that the city gives a valuable upzone, and in return, anyone who builds contributes to affordable housing. But the details are crucial. They need to be worked out painstakingly, block by block, in front of the people.
Instead there’s been as much suspicion created as affordable housing.
Correction: A previous version of this column linked to an incorrect document when referring to the appeal by the Wallingford Community Council. The link now goes to the correct document.