Three lawyers filed a lawsuit against the City of Seattle on Thursday claiming Mayor Jenny Durkan and seven city council members violated transparency laws by reaching an agreement to repeal the head tax “via unlawful clandestine discussions."
The lawsuit, first reported by the Seattle Times, alleges that local lawmakers violated the Open Public Meetings Act, which prohibits any governing body from adopting ordinances outside a public meeting. According to the law, any vote taken by “secret ballot” outside a public meeting can be voided.
The lawsuit also claims that the city violated a requirement to give 24-hours notice prior to calling a special meeting.
The lawsuit notes that a spokesperson for the City Council sent out a media advisory at 12:09 p.m. on Monday announcing a special meeting on at 12:00 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the head tax repeal ordinance.
Mayor Durkan and seven council members released a statement shortly after the advisory responding to the groundswell of opposition to the head tax. "We heard you,” the statement read.
In a letter today to Mayor Durkan, City Attorney Pete Holmes said he believes the city would prevail against an Open Public Meetings Act challenge. Holmes' letter, emailed to The Stranger from the mayor's office, states that the city posted physical notice of the special meeting at the front door of the council chambers on 11:57 a.m and that notice was transmitted to the council's online docket system at 11:55 a.m.
Council President Bruce Harrell called the special meeting, during which council members voted 7 to 2 to repeal the $275 per employee head tax they had just passed less than a month ago.
The lawsuit cites Seattle Times reporting on the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote, making a case that Mayor Durkan and council members illegally reached a consensus to nix the head tax out of the public eye.
According to the Times, council members Lorena González and Lisa Herbold discussed the possibility of a repeal on Sunday evening. Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan asked González to sign a joint statement that same evening. Rob Johnson said he learned of the repeal ordinance from Harrell early Monday morning. Bagshaw said she learned about the repeal proposal from the mayor’s office on Sunday while she was at the beach.
Council member Mike O’Brien told The Stranger Monday evening that he discussed the idea of a repeal “over the weekend” on a conference call with his colleagues Herbold and Teresa Mosqueda.
"I am one of the people who came up with the idea,” he said in a phone interview.
O’Brien said he also spoke to staff for Gonzalez. He also said, “At some point there was—the mayor’s office was involved in those conversations. But they weren’t—there was never like pressure to ‘do this or else’ or anything.”
Asked more about who initiated talk of a repeal, O’Brien declined to say. He said he “did not initiate a phone call. I was invited to chat. I can’t remember who sent me the email.”
According to Seattle city law, it takes five council members to make a quorum.
Before Tuesday's meeting, the Times quoted Katherine George, a Seattle trial attorney, saying, "Even though they haven’t voted yet, they’re not even supposed to discuss or consider taking action outside of a public meeting."
Washington State law calls for the "actions" of governing bodies "to be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly." The statute defines "actions" as "the transaction of the official business of a public agency by a governing body including but not limited to receipt of public testimony, deliberations, discussions, considerations, reviews, evaluations, and final actions."
Holmes' letter states that he believes the special meeting met those requirements.
“Here, both the public and news media, and the Council itself, were all fully engaged in an open public process that included public comments, reporting by the media, comments from all nine Councilmembers, and a public vote held before a live audience and broadcast live to the public," he wrote.
The lawsuit places blame on Mayor Durkan and eight council members, all of them except Kshama Sawant.
"Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s actions are not currently at issue in this case, as she was apparently left out of the communications that are the subject of these violations,” the complaint states.
By the time the council voted to repeal the head tax on Tuesday, opponents of the policy organized under the name No Tax on Jobs had gathered more than 45,000 signatures to place it on the November ballot. The deadline to turn in those signatures to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission was today.
The group did not respond to request for comment. As of publication, a spokesperson for the Seattle City Clerk’s Office said the group as not turned in signatures.