Last week, Seattle Times reporter Emily Heffter wrote that she was "physically dragged... away from" a closed-door meeting in city council member Jean Godden's office by Godden aide Tom Van Bronkhorst.
"The state's Open Public Meetings Act requires that meetings of public governing bodies be open. The law applies to their votes—but also discussions and deliberations leading up to votes," Heffter wrote.
However, according to accounts from several people close to the meeting, Heffter wasn't "dragged" at all. According to those accounts, Heffter told staffers, "My editor sent me down here to get kicked out," after which Van Bronkhorst looped his finger under her purse strap and gestured that she should leave. Although Heffter was reportedly cooperative, before leaving she reportedly asked if she could be "kicked out" again, this time by Godden herself.
Neither Heffter nor her editor, Jim Simon, has responded to requests to comment on the discrepancies between Heffter's stories and City Hall staffers' accounts.
However, in her attempt to manufacture outrage against the council, Heffter failed to mention several pertinent facts.
First, the meetings did not constitute a quorum of the city council, which could trigger the state's Open Public Meetings Act.
Second, as a City Hall reporter like Heffter surely knows, council members receive briefings in their inner offices all the time. Legislation gets drafted in private negotiations every single week; the subsequent committee discussions take place after everyone has seen the legislation, passed around their amendments, and determined their positions.
Third, this year's budget cuts are relatively minor—between 1.5 and 3 percent for each city department, thanks to a "rainy day fund" that still contains some $30 million.
Finally, and most importantly, this year's budget cuts are not subject to a public vote. Mayor Greg Nickels has the authority to reduce the budget in the middle of the year with no council input. He can choose to brief the council, but he doesn't have to—and if he does, those meetings don't have to be public.
Perhaps the fact that Heffter doesn't appear to be aware of this is a symptom of the Seattle Times' longstanding policy of routinely rotating reporters in and out of City Hall. Perhaps it's willful naiveté. And perhaps it's just bad reporting—it's easy to get kicked out of a meeting, but its hard to develop sources who will tell you what's going on behind the scenes at City Hall.
But to demand that council members should hold every single conversation about policy in public doesn't serve the public interest. In practice, such a policy would cause local government to grind to a halt.
Ultimately, the Times and Heffter got their way: Mayoral staffers will still brief the council, but only one council member at a time. It's hard to see how that constitutes a victory for open government.