Under its settlement with Seattle attorney James Egan, the city did not admit wrongdoing. City Attorney Pete Holmes continues to maintain the council did not break the open-meetings law.
The city of Seattle has agreed to pay $3,500 and will advise City Council members against using private tally sheets to count votes ahead of public meetings under a settlement in one of two lawsuits that allege the council broke Washington’s Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) in the lead-up to its abrupt repeal of the head tax last June.
The settlement with Seattle attorney James Egan is laid out in separate documents that were submitted to King County Superior Court on Monday. One of the documents calls for a city payment of $1,000 in exchange for Egan dropping claims against Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw and Mike O’Brien. A reason for the settlement amount isn’t specified, but it would cover the $500 civil fines that Bagshaw and O’Brien each could face had a judge ultimately found they broke the state’s open-meetings law.
In the other document, the city agreed to an additional $2,500 payment to address “at least five (5) alleged violations ” of the OPMA by Councilmember Lorena González, as well as promises that when council members get training about the law in the future, the city “shall state that the use of form `tally sheets’ … is inadvisable in light of the obligations and requirements of OPMA.”
Egan, in exchange, agreed to drop his case against González and the city. Open-government activist Arthur West, who separately sued the full council for similar contentions last year, isn’t a party to the settlement. His case remains set for trial in June.
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Under its settlement with Egan, the city did not admit wrongdoing. City Attorney Pete Holmes continues to maintain the council did not break the open-meetings law.
“The settlement resolves litigation on favorable terms and is in the best interest of the City,” Holmes said in an emailed statement Monday.
Egan’s attorney, Lincoln Beauregard, said Monday he pitched the settlements to Holmes’ office last month, after Bagshaw and O’Brien announced they weren’t planning to run for re-election this year.
“The main goal for this litigation was to inform the public about what was going on at City Hall so they could make informed decisions during the upcoming elections,” Beauregard said. “Since O’Brien and Bagshaw made the right decision to step away from public office, we don’t see any utility in pursuing anything further with them other than seeing their fines paid.”
With respect to the allegations against González, Egan sought the added assurance that her alleged secret vote-tallying would be addressed, as well as a payment commensurate with an amount covering fines she faced for multiple alleged OPMA violations, Beauregard said. During pretrial litigation, Egan obtained text records and other information he says indicates González’s office sometimes used tally sheets to count votes on council issues ahead of public meetings.
“We reviewed the file closely, and it showed a multitude of violations — on the head-tax vote and others — that included the use of illegal tally forms by González,” Beauregard said. “In our judgment, the best way to serve the public was to close the case out in a way that addressed both the fines and future training to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
Holmes last year had offered to pay Egan $4,001 to collectively cover fines for eight City Council members cited in his original lawsuit, but Egan rejected the offer. Holmes later hired the private Seattle law firm, Savitt, Bruce & Willey, to help the city fight the case under a contract that will pay the firm up to $145,000.
Egan and West 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.
Both lawsuits contended the council broke the public transparency law with the aid of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s top deputies through a series of secret texts and phone calls in the days before members formally voted 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 a 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.
Egan and West contend the behind-the-scenes dealings amounted to secret meetings that predetermined the public vote and broke the meetings law, which aims to prevent backroom decision-making. Egan later revised his suit to name Council President Bruce Harrell, Bagshaw, González and O’Brien as defendants, but dropped Harrell from the case in December. West’s suit still names all nine council members as defendants.
King County Superior Court Judge Timothy Bradshaw last year ruled the council’s 7-2 public vote to repeal the tax would stand, but he also found the plaintiffs’ contentions were solid and he allowed the suits to proceed to trial.