Washington’s redistricting commission has admitted its members violated the state Open Public Meetings Act and will pay fines and legal costs of more than $137,000 to settle two lawsuits filed by government transparency watchdogs.
Under a proposed consent decree announced Wednesday, the redistricting commission’s members will each pay $500 fines and undergo training in the open-meetings law.
The commission also pledged reforms aimed at preventing a repeat of the illegal conduct that took place last year during final negotiations over the state’s new congressional and legislative district maps.
The consent decree, which is subject to final approval by a Thurston County judge, will not void or alter the political maps belatedly agreed to by the commission, which will be in place for the next 10 years.
The money from the fines will be evenly split between the plaintiffs who filed separate lawsuits against the commission: the Washington Coalition for Open Government and transparency activist Arthur West. Along with the panel’s partisan commissioners, its nonpartisan chair, Sarah Augustine, must also pay a $500 fine.
In addition, the commission agreed to pay more than $120,000 to cover legal expenses and fees for WCOG’s attorney, Joan Mell, and pay $15,000 to West, who represented himself.
The settlement and admissions of flouting transparency laws were an embarrassing coda to Washington’s once-a-decade redistricting talks, which ended in a display of chaos and deception.
As the bipartisan commission raced to try to meet a midnight Nov. 15 legal deadline to vote on the new maps, it convened a 7 p.m. online public meeting.
But the four voting commissioners — Democrats April Sims and Brady Walkinshaw and Republicans Joe Fain and Paul Graves — vanished from public view for much of the next five hours as they tried to hash out final agreements at a Federal Way hotel.
The commissioners reappeared just before midnight to take rushed votes on ostensible final map deals that were not publicly displayed. The next day, the commission members admitted they had actually failed to reach a final deal before the legal deadline.
That threw the maps to the state Supreme Court, which in December declined to exercise its authority to draw its own maps, deferring to the agreement forged by the two Democratic and two Republican commissioners, who were appointed by legislative caucus leaders.
The settlement terms were hailed Wednesday by the open-government advocates who filed the lawsuits. In exchange for promised reforms, the plaintiffs dropped their request for courts to invalidate the commission’s final map agreement.
“We concluded the Supreme Court and Legislature had no interest in invalidating the plan and maps so close to the 2022 elections. We took no position on maps, but pursued an outcome that ensures this Commission and future Commission will not repeat the same mistakes. We feel this outcome achieved that aim,” Washington Coalition for Open Government President Mike Fancher said in a statement.
“The Commission has taken these matters seriously as shown by their stipulation to individual penalties and covering the costs and attorney’s fees incurred in enforcing open government protections,” Fancher added.
“This consent decree ensures that the next time redistricting maps are drawn, the people will know what is going to be approved beforehand, and the commission will not be free to produce final maps in a secret meeting at the party room of the Hampton Motor Inn in the wee hours of the morning,” West said in an emailed statement.
In a news release, the redistricting commission said the settlement “will resolve the litigation and preserve the validity of the maps the Commission developed for legislative and congressional districts this decade.” Individual commissioners did not respond to requests for comment.
Besides the fines and legal fees, the commission also formally admitted in the consent decree that it violated the open-meetings law as well as its own rules on transparency by engaging in “serial meetings” in which commissioners met privately in groups of two to negotiate maps without discussing them in public.
The commission pledged in the future to never convene a public meeting and then recess to talk in private, except for matters authorized to be discussed in closed executive sessions. It also agreed commissioners will not vote on final redistricting plans or frameworks in private, and will make final maps publicly available before voting on them.
Those promises of greater transparency will apply to the next redistricting commission, which will be appointed in 10 years, following the 2030 Census.
Under state law, the current redistricting commission will cease to exist on July 1.