Meet the Information Pit Bull
Howard Gale Is on a Quest to Uncover Secret Government Records
It's a Thursday morning and around 20 people are milling about in the Seattle Center Armory's cathedral-like food court. Jazz music streams from overhead speakers, and vendors hawking time-share condos call out to young mothers and a handful of early-bird tourists as they find seats, while on the far side of the room, two homeless men rest at tables with their backpacks carefully packed and propped on plastic chairs. Fifty-eight-year-old Howard Gale eyes up the scene, readjusts his baseball cap, and takes a table next to the table of homeless men.
The choice is deliberate: Gale is suing the Seattle Center and the City of Seattle for withholding public documents that he suspects will illustrate how the Seattle Center is trying to push homeless patrons out of the city-owned-and-operated Armory.
He's already won one lawsuit—a judge recently ruled that the city violated state public-disclosure laws and withheld documents from Gale last year. "The City admits that [it] may have been inadequate by inadvertently failing to produce some responsive documents," summarized King County Superior Court judge Theresa Doyle in a March 13, 2013, judgment.
But Gale is suing again, this time in appellate court, to recover a batch of still-missing documents and shine a light on the city's troubling practice of flouting state law and withholding public information to suit its interests.
Gale contends that the Seattle Center staff has been working for the last year to "mitigate" its "homeless problem" (their words, not his) by turning off power to public outlets that homeless people use to charge their cell phones. Or else covering the outlets with locked covers.
It might seem like an obvious, even practical, business decision—a city-owned tourist destination discouraging homeless patrons from using its resources—and hardly worth the fight. But there are two issues at play: Seattle Center is public, like any park space, and homeless patrons have just as much right to use it as time-share-condo salesmen and clods of tourists from Missouri. And Gale says the implications of the city's failure to fulfill his disclosure request are huge.
"They're playing a shell game with public information," he says. "If there are no consequences, why wouldn't they do it again? With you or with anyone else?" Indeed, the Seattle Times just settled out of court with the Seattle Police Department, another city department that withheld a key document in a public-disclosure request relating to the 2012 May Day protests.
Back at the Seattle Center, Gale leans back in his chair and surveys the near-empty food court.
"There's no other resource like this in the city," says the experimental psychologist with a PhD from Harvard, who walks from his Queen Anne home to work three times a week or more. "It's a space where anyone can come to relax, regroup, and charge their computers or cell phones, and its code of conduct is much different than at the library. It's looser here."
That is, until last September, when Gale noticed that the Armory's accessibility was being discreetly cut off. Locked covers appeared on all of the available electrical outlets, and new behavior rules—rules that prohibited patrons from resting their heads on tables, for instance—were implemented and selectively enforced. When Gale asked Seattle Center staff about the changes, they demurred.
So Gale filed a public-disclosure request with the Seattle Center for any documents that would prove that the city had, in fact, tried to "restrict or control the access of any particular group of people to space or services (including access to AC outlets) at Seattle Center."
It's a point of pride that Washington has one of the strongest public-disclosure acts in the country, which grant the public access to a wide range of documents—from handwritten notes to e-mails—pertaining to the conduct or performance of any state or local government agency. The government must then remit a copy of those documents in a timely manner.
Gale got his smoking gun when he received his first batch of documents on November 14, 2012. Among them was a February 3 e-mail from Seattle Center chief operating officer Mary Wideman-Williams that stated: "The topics that surfaced repeatedly as 'biggies' were: How to manage our resident transient population? (includes making decisions about power outlets in the atrium)." Other staff e-mails voiced concerns that the homeless "could drive away food service customers or vendors" and that the Seattle Center should work with the police and human services departments to mitigate "the potential displacement of transient population due to new [Armory] space use & amenities."
Around city hall, Gale is known as a political gadfly who digs into issues—and doesn't let go.
"I think it's fair to call him big-brained and bullheaded," said one city hall staffer who asked not to be identified. "As a city employee, you kind of cringe when a guy like Howard Gale zeroes in on your work. He has opinions on everything and he's not shy about telling you how to do your job."
Although he uncovered some records that showed the city targeting homeless people, Gale says he knew that information was still missing because there was a five-month gap in notes culled from biweekly staff meetings. "Someone had to be giving orders," Gale speculates.
The missing documents may violate the state's Public Records Act. Over the next month, Gale says he played a game of hide-and-seek with Seattle Center—one where he asked repeatedly, "Where's the missing information?" To which they basically responded, "What information are you missing?"
Gale finally filed a lawsuit against the city and Seattle Center in King County Superior Court on December 3. He says his lawsuit soon highlighted another flaw in city transparency: The City Attorney's Office had to fulfill the disclosure request while simultaneously defending the city against Gale's lawsuit. Gale says the dichotomy amounted to a "violation of legal ethics. They can't vociferously defend their client while filling my request."
But city attorney spokeswoman Kimberly Mills calls this claim, at least, "meritless."
She says that her office has three assistant city attorneys dedicated to honoring the Public Records Act by filling requests and training other city employees to fill requests. "Our office can defend the City against Mr. Gale's lawsuit while simultaneously promoting transparency," she says.
Since Gale filed his lawsuit, the city has released an additional 402 documents. Still, Gale contends more are missing. Gale is now mulling over the idea of building a nonprofit citizen action group dedicated to filing and fine-tooth-combing over large government projects.
"If these things are relegated to court battles and get tied up for months or years, the city's won," he says.