June 9, 2012 – Sunshine in Rain City

With much of the rapid change taking place in Seattle these days, there is always a sense of something not being right, and the desire to understand why.  The immediate reaction is some short changing of the process, a backroom deal, log rolling and back scratching, the bending of rules.

For many community advocates, attending public meetings and public records requests are a matter of course.  Being able to observe and engage at a public hearing – witnessing the so-called sausage making – is part of our job.  And when we seek behind the scenes information in order to understand how decisions are being made, or to see just how a department is operating, or if trying to uncover some more nefarious machinations within our government, access is everything.  But, of course, one man’s citizen activist is another’s gadfly.

In recent years alone we have seen many eyebrow raising choices that have warranted extensive citizen engagement and inquiry. From the Deep Bore Tunnel to the Mercer Rebuild, from up-zoning in Roosevelt and other Light Rail station areas to Children’s Hospital’s expansion to the so-called Regulatory Reform.  Then there’s the on-going tax exemptions and departures for developers.  And of course there’s stadium after stadium after stadium…  

Getting behind the scenes to advocate requires diligence, persistence and patience.  It can be a tedious, unrewarding process. But it’s a process (in fact, a right) that has not always been available.  And, surprisingly, one that is far more generous than in other locales.  At the same time there has been slow drift away from openness.  Council’s and the City’s commitment to full implementation of State open records and open meetings requirements is certainly questionable.  And the City Attorney’s campaign promise to make public that office’s opinions has gone unfulfilled.  Even the City’s paper of record (the Daily Journal of Commerce) requires a paid subscription.

When Mayor Mike McGinn took office in January 2010 he pledged to take his new role with “a sense of humility”.  He said “It is our intention first and foremost to be responsive to the public at large and to be open to the public at large.”  What that exactly means and how successful he has been is open to debate.  The “Ideas for Seattle” website, much ballyhooed at the start of his term as a way to garner citizen input, now dead ends at a 404 Not Found.  Google “Seattle Open Government” and you are directed to the Mayor’s Open Government page which sports a pothole map, street light outage map, and crime map among other such useful information.  And the secrecy and stonewalling of the Department of Planning and Development makes one think that Greg Nickels is still in office – or it’s just now run by Dick Cheney.  Ask a Seattle department for information about a Parks deal or changes to tree regulations and you’re likely to get very little useful information back.

And at the same time the Mayor secretly cuts a stadium deal without informing Council, who in turn express the same kind of outrage that citizens recently expressed when they discovered the loosening of neighborhood zoning and SEPA regulations devised at the request of the Mayor’s closed-door, developer-slanted “roundtable”.

Where is Seattle headed when it comes to open government?  When even the recommendations of the Attorney General’s “Sunshine Committee” (created to pare down the 300+ exemptions from public records in State law) are ignored by the Legislature, is this a sign that Washington’s open government zenith may be a thing of the past?  What options do we as citizens have to press for more access and accountability?  The Washington Coalition for Open Government is deeply concerned with these issues, and our speakers today hopefully will be willing to share with us as many insights as time allows.  Enjoy the brief sunshine – clouds are expected for the rest of the week, if not longer.

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”  RCW 42.30.010 and RCW 42.56.030

Our guests this week are Toby Nixon and Kathy George, two leading lights shining on government.

Toby Nixon is a member of the Kirkland City Council. He previously served as a fire commissioner, and in the Washington State House of Representatives from 2002 through 2006 where he was ranking member of the committee which has responsibility for overseeing Washington’s open government and election laws. He is the 2012 inductee to “Heroes of the 50 States: The State Open Government Hall of Fame” by the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2006, he received the “Freedom’s Light Award” from Washington Newspaper Publishers Association in recognition of his work to protect and advance First Amendment interests in Washington. He’s a member of the Washington State Historical Records Advisory Board, and serves as an officer and board member of a number of local non-profit organizations. Toby has worked in the computer industry for over 35 years, currently in the Windows group at Microsoft where he manages relationships with other companies in the computer industry and represents Microsoft in technical standards development organizations.

Katherine A. George is an attorney with Harrison, Benis & Spence, LLP. Kathy represents citizens and groups before administrative, trial and appellate courts at the local, State and Federal levels, primarily in matters concerning the right of all citizens to an open government and the right of disabled children to an appropriate special education. She also handles First Amendment issues, environmental and land use disputes, and other challenges to government actions. Kathy is dedicated to a vigorous and free press, having worked as an editor and reporter at newspapers including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Tacoma News Tribune, and more recently as an attorney assisting the Committee For a Two-Newspaper Town and helping newspaper associations in records cases. She once received the 1996 National Press Club’s Freedom of the Press Award (domestic) for exercising a journalist’s privilege not to testify. Kathy began her legal career in 2005 as a law clerk for then-Chief Justice Gerry Alexander of the Washington Supreme Court.

by Bill Bradburd 6/8/2012

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