Unfortunately for the ACLU--and any other civic-minded folks, for that matter--the forum for putting these ideas into the police accountability mix has been closed to the public. In an April 17 letter addressed to Mayor Greg Nickels and Seattle City Council President Peter Steinbrueck, the ACLU pointed out that the committee responsible for bringing cop reform proposals to the table--the city council's Labor Relations Policy Committee (LRPC)--meets behind closed doors, violating the state's Open Public Meetings Act. (The LRPC is the city council committee that negotiates with all municipal workers' unions, including the Seattle Police Officers Guild.)
The ACLU's letter states, "We understand that Seattle's Labor Relations Policy Committee (LRPC) will soon... develop policy that will guide labor negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild. We note that the membership of the Committee--and indeed, its very existence--is not listed on the City's Web site identifying City Council Committees, and is generally not known to the public. Labor contracts with municipal workers' unions unquestionably have major impacts on Seattle."
The ACLU is concerned with the impact of one set of municipal workers in particular: cops. "In the case of the Seattle Police Officers Guild contract," the letter continues, "the very terms of the agreement in the past directly has affected the ability of Seattle's elected officials to establish meaningful civilian oversight."
The ACLU's point is this: Civilian oversight issues have been boxed into the realm of the police guild's labor contract. If the committee that deals with the guild's contract is closed to the public, how can the public push for police oversight reform? How can we even know what reforms elected officials are seeking in the first place?
The LRPC is closed to the public, the city explains, because the committee deals with police personnel issues (discipline and grievance policy, for example), which are legitimate private labor matters. The ACLU acknowledges this exemption, but points out that those matters only constitute a "portion" of the committee's business, and cannot be used as an excuse to close the LRPC altogether--especially when the LRPC is the de facto body for hammering out police accountability reform.
Indeed, while another relevant council committee, the Public Safety Committee (which oversees the cops), is open to the public, it has forfeited the nuts and bolts of police accountability to the labor bargaining table. That's where the clandestine five-member LRPC comes in. For example, while folks like the ACLU have used the Public Safety Committee to advocate racial profiling reform, the reforms the council actually seeks get hammered out in the LRPC. As Lisa Herbold, staffer for Council Member Nick Licata, asks: If the relevant council committee has no public accountability, how can the public know what the council has actually decided to fight for?
It was, in fact, Licata's office that tipped off the ACLU about the existence of the pivotal (and secret) LRPC. While Licata is actually one of the five members on the LRPC, he shares the ACLU's concerns. He thinks that while the committee has the right to meet in private when it's hammering out labor bargaining strategy, he doesn't want that aspect of the committee to serve as a force field against public access on policy issues--like whether or not the citizen review board should have subpoena power.
"There's a gray area between policy discussion and labor negotiation preparation," Licata says. "Where do we cross the line? If negotiation preparation is so broad as to include policy discussion, then do we end up locking the public out?"
In response to the ACLU and Licata, Mayor Nickels spokesperson Marianne Bichsel says simply: The LRPC meetings do not violate the state's Open Public Meetings Act.
Meanwhile, the City Attorney's Office says they are researching the issue at the behest of Licata.