By the second Monday in June, the city’s new head tax was clearly in trouble. Public outrage was boiling over into threats of lawsuits and referendums, and Mayor Jenny Durkan was just hours away from sending out a press release calling for the repeal of the city’s head tax. According to public records published in the Seattle Times last week, Durkan had the support of six councilmembers for her call to repeal the business tax but she still didn’t have the support of City Councilmember Lorena González.
That’s when Cody Reiter, one of González's staffers, texted his boss a photo of a vote tally sheet, with names of each councilmember and marks indicating “approve” next to six names. González's name was still blank.
After seeing the intentions of six of her nine fellow colleagues, González had a simple reply.
“I’m a yes.”
These text messages, combined with earlier conference calls arranged by Durkan’s deputy mayors and a similar vote sharing text message sent to Councilmember Rob Johnson, present a damning picture of our City Council secretly forming a voting majority out of view from the public’s eye. That’s illegal, according to Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
“Now you’ve got—I hate to use the word—a smoking gun that shows that there really was information conveyed amongst the majority of the council,” Nixon told me.
The council doesn't appear to have physically convened in secret to decide our city’s business, but that doesn’t matter. Using city staff to covertly convey their voting intentions accomplishes the same task as hashing out our city’s laws in a secret basement bar: The council decided on a course of action out of view of the public’s eye.
And the state’s Open Public Meetings Act makes it clear that a majority of the council cannot share their voting intentions with each other, even if it’s through a third party, according to Nixon.
“If that wasn’t the rule, then imagine how it could be abused. They could say ‘we never had a meeting, we just had someone convey messages between us.’ Well the effect is exactly the same… it just doesn’t matter that it was done through a third party,” Nixon said.
González said she didn’t see the vote tally image until after the press release was sent to the media, but that story seems highly doubtful. Why would she ignore a text message she then replied to? And the Times’ Lewis Kamb, who published the documents originally acquired by Kevin Schofield of the local blog SCC Insight, said Gonzalez’s affirmative reply was time stamped an hour before the press release was sent to the media.
And the council’s secret meetings were not limited to text messages sent to González. A separate series of text messages between Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan and Councilmember Rob Johnson, concerning not the press release but the repeal vote itself, are equally damning. Ranganathan told Johnson, using the initials of five councilmembers, that a majority of the council was already in support of the repeal.
“Mayor wants to call for a repeal tomorrow a.m. We have been trying to reach folks yesterday and today to talk through. LG, MoB, LH, DJ and SB are likely ready to move forward with a repeal…” Ranganathan texted Johnson.
Jesse Franzblau, of the D.C.-based government transparency non-profit OpenTheGovernment, told me that the backroom dealings of Seattle’s City Council were clearly problematic.
“Having these things already hashed out behind closed doors is definitely a bad precedent… if things are happening behind closed doors you are really missing out on the public’s voice on what the decision outcome is by the policymakers,” Franzblau said. “It can lead to a total breakdown of public trust, it leads to special interests being able to influence things that aren’t in the public interest.”
As if these records aren’t damning enough, the way these smoking guns emerged even further erodes public trust. The city appears to have withheld, or at least intentionally delayed the release of these text messages. Kamb said he had a public record request of his own for these documents but that request was closed before the city handed over Johnson and González's text messages.
The city also tried to settle a lawsuit over these backroom allegations before turning over the text messages, which are clear evidence of the wrongdoing the lawsuit against the city alleges. City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office told the Times that they were planning on releasing these documents in time, but that doesn’t change that his office tried to settle this matter before the public saw what truly transpired that weekend in June.
Nixon said these delayed public record releases follow a recent pattern in government, where agencies try to bury damning documents in lengthy delays.
“What you often see is the early installments are just a pile of garbage that is useless in pursuing the information you are looking for and it’s only the last installment that has the really useful records,” Nixon said. “And my observation is that the agencies are trying to fatigue the requestor into abandoning their request.”
Well, the entire city should thank Schofield for pursuing his records request because it eventually led to evidence that our lawmakers clearly broke state law. Nixon said the council's violations might be caused more by lack of training than malice. Nixon said the staff and councilmembers should be getting better advice from City Attorney Pete Holmes.
“For whatever reason, Pete Holmes’ office has not done a very good job of educating the council members about this issue of virtual meetings and serial meetings,” Nixon said.
These kinds of secret meetings and vote counting happen frequently in our capitols, both Olympia and D.C., but that's because those legislatures have shielded themselves from these open meeting laws. There’s no reason we should let those practices drain into our offices.
By honestly debating a piece of legislation in the public view, we can see why a lawmaker is supporting something. Is it because they are scared of a powerful business, or the world’s richest human being? Is it because they’ve been bought by a powerful special interest? One of the best ways to find out is by watching them debate the issues in public.
And it’s from watching these debates that we can decide if we want to keep these people in office.
“If they are able to operate in secret then we have no way to make those judgments, we have really no way to be informed voters and be able to judge if these folks should be able to stay in office,” Nixon said. “Fundamentally, that is what it gets down to, the public’s right to see what the government is doing.”
The city may have tried to hide what they were doing when they repealed the head tax, but a pertinacious blogger and the Seattle Times got in their way. We’ll see if the laws stop them the next time.