Saturday, March 7, 2009

Audio (4.5 minutes) of an interview that Chris Leman gave to the Feb. 26 KBCS-FM 91.3 show, One World Report, regarding the Seattle City Council's efforts to develop an Open and Participatory Government Plan, and suggestions for it that the Seattle Community Council Federation made in the Feb. 24 letter pasted below.


February 24, 2009

City Councilmembers
City Hall, 600 4th Avenue, 2nd floor
PO Box 94749
Seattle, WA 98124-4749


Dear City Councilmembers:

The Seattle Community Council Federation offers here its suggestions for the City Council’s Special Committee on Open Government regarding the Open and Participatory Government Plan and Policy that, under Res. 31049, the Committee is responsible for developing for City Council action. We also provide suggestions on how the Committee might approach its task. Founded in 1946, SCCF has worked for many years toward a more open and participatory Seattle government.

Background. Res. 31049 (adopted April 14, 2008) includes the following:

Section 3 Open and Participatory Government Plan and Policy.
The Council will develop a coordinated plan and policy on open and
participatory government outside of the Comprehensive Plan. The open
and participatory government plan will consolidate current policies
into a cohesive document. Development of the plan and policy will
include reviewing existing policies and considering additional
policies where gaps exist or there are opportunities to extend and
increase the City's commitments. The Council's review will include
consideration of possible Comprehensive Plan policies for the 2009
Comprehensive Plan amendment cycle. The Council President will
consult with Councilmembers to either identify an existing Committee
in which this work plan item could be located, or to determine
whether a special Committee should be developed.

Although SCCF regrets that the first meeting of the Special Committee will occur more than ten months after passage of Res. 31049, we look forward to working with the committee as it develops for full Council action an Open and Participatory Government Plan and Policy that we all can be proud of.

2009 City Council Work Program. We are concerned that the City Council’s 2009 Work Program (p. 36) describes the work of the Special Committee for Open Government only as being to “Enhance transparency of Council actions and improve opportunities for public input to Council decisions.” On the contrary, the Open and Participatory Government Plan and Policy that Res. 31049 calls for is clearly not limited to City Council activities, but is to cover all parts of the City government. We request that the Work Program be amended to reflect this broad work product and mission of the Committee.

We regretfully note that adoption of the Seattle City Council 2009 Work Program exemplified barriers to open and participatory government that the Open and Participatory Government Plan and Policy needs to correct. As Res. 31113, the 2009 Work Program was both “walked on” (introduced) and passed at the Feb. 2, 2009 City Council meeting. It was not an agenda item in any City Council committee, nor, prior to its introduction and adoption, was it available on the City web site or even mentioned on that day’s City Council agenda. There was no realistic opportunity for the public to know about what was being proposed nor for the public to provide comments that could have been considered prior to passage.

The description of Council work items and the resources that will be devoted to them is an important statement of Council priorities, one that should be discussed in draft at the committee level, with the public given timely notice and the opportunity to comment. We note that, even after it was adopted, the version that is on the web site is almost unreadable, making it difficult for the public to understand exactly what the Council decided that day.

The Council’s adoption of the 2009 Work Program was not in accordance with Legislative Department Procedure PRO-D-617 (effective Jan. 22, 2008), which states that

All newly-proposed legislation, regardless of whether from the Executive or another agency, or generated by the City Council or staff, must be delivered to the Legislative Department Receptionist or the Deputy Clerk no later than noon on Tuesdays. Exceptions to this procedure, which include the actions commonly known as “walk-ons,” are strongly discouraged and are subject to review by the City Clerk and approval by the Council President prior to the meeting at which they would be introduced. [emphasis in the original]

One wonders what was the rush, as Res. 31113 was adopted on Feb. 2, 2009, more than three weeks earlier in February than was Res. 31045, which adopted the 2008 Work Program on Feb. 25, 2008).

Committee practices. The Special Committee for Open Government should set a good example in providing openness and participation. The agenda for the Committee’s first meeting on Feb. 27 schedules public comment as only the last item on the agenda, preventing public comment from informing the Councilmembers’ discussions during the meeting. While SCCF can see the value of allowing the public to comment at the end of the meeting, we urge that the Committee always provide a public comment period at the beginning of the meeting.

We also find that on the Council web site, the Committee agenda does not have any links to documents that the Committee will be discussing, among them the committee’s draft work plan and the proposed Council Bill to amend the Seattle Municipal Code regarding compliance with the Public Records Act. Such documents should routinely be included as links in the agenda well in advance of Committee meetings, so the public has a meaningful opportunity to comment.

To demonstrate and practice openness and participation, we urge the Special Committee to engage in outreach and publicity about its meetings and drafts; to consider suggestions from the public and comments on committee drafts; and to hold some meetings in the evening or on weekends to reach members of the public who cannot attend committee meetings during the business day.

Conclusion. Thank you for your efforts to improve openness and participation in City government. We look forward to working with you to ensure that these efforts are lasting and successful.


Jeannie Hale, President
3425 West Laurelhurst Drive NE
Seattle, Washington 98105
206-525-5135 / fax 206-525-9631

Below is a listing of specific steps that governments can take to make it easier for citizens to find out what they are doing. Open government depends of course on obedience to laws on open public meetings and the disclosure of public records. But governments should not simply wait for a citizen to ask for information or to attend public meetings; they should proactively maximize the quantity and quality of public access to documents, meetings, and other activities.
City Council
• Publicize meetings of the Council and its committees widely, beyond what is minimally required by state law
• Include citizen stakeholders around the table regularly at Council committee meetings.
• Well in advance of meetings of the Council and its committees, provide on the web site, as links to the agenda, those documents that will be discussed, including amendments likely to be offered
• Provide paper copies (at least for inspection purposes) at meetings of the Council and its committees so that members of the public have the full text of what is being discussed
• Without a declaration by the City Council that the matter justifies a departure from this practice, do not take action on the same day as a hearing, soon after a committee recommendation or on a measure that has not been referred to a committee for its consideration.
• Accompany all legislation with a clear explanation of what is being proposed; in the case of land use legislation, explain how it would affect various types of landowners and renters
• For each quarterly budget adjustment, do public outreach and hold at least one public meeting outside of business hours.
• Do not allow the Growth Management Act’s requirement for prior public notice of “development regulations” to expand to curtail Council and public debate on proposals that are not “development regulations”
• For each quarterly budget adjustment, do public outreach and hold at least one public meeting outside of business hours
• Adopt a City Council rule requiring that Council staff shall not lobby for City legislation (similar rules applying to state House and Senate legislative staff have been in effect for many years).
• Assign Council central staff in a way that ensures that responsibilities for review of proposals • from an agency are not given exclusively to staff who formerly were employees of that agency
• For appointments and renewals that are exclusively the Council’s decision and are made by Council vote (City Clerk, City Auditor, and Hearing Examiner), adopt legislation requiring as much public notice and comment as the Council requires for its confirmation or renewal of Mayoral appointees
• Restore to a majority vote the Council’s decision on whether to release legal advice it has received (a Council rule change adopted in 1998 allows even one Councilmember to veto such release)
• Routinely release for public discussion any legal advice the Council has received unless there is an impending legal proceeding
• Legislative retreats that are public meetings under the Open Public Meetings Act shall be held in City buildings within the City of Seattle and shall be audio recorded
• Executive sessions shall be audio recorded (the City Council in 2008 supported state legislation requiring audio recording of executive sessions, but does not audio record its own)
• Upon request, provide interpretation services at City Council meetings so that people for whom English is not their first language, or who are deaf or deaf-blind, can observe or comment
Mayor and executive branch
• Avoid unilateral budget actions; bring budget adjustments to the City Council for action
• Ensure that public-private partnerships do not become a substitute for public planning and outreach
• In any implementation of a 311 call center, do not close off the public's access to the existing phone numbers of City agencies and officials.
• The Mayor's title shall not be put in the name of City agencies that are not a part of the Office of the Mayor
• Executive branch lobbying of the City Council shall not be exempted from lobby disclosure regulation (at the state level, state and local executive branch lobbying of the legislature has been subject to disclosure for many years)
City Attorney
• Issue opinions on legal matters for public review, including on questions posted by the public (as is done by the state Attorney General)
• Advise the executive branch and City Council on proactive ways to achieve open and participatory government that go beyond the minimal legal requirements of state law
Advisory boards and commissions
• Meetings of City boards and commissions shall be widely publicized, and held in rooms large enough for all
• Board and commission meetings shall be regarded as public meetings, whether or not this is required under the Open Public Meetings Act (which applies only to advisory committees created by ordinance)
• Equip for TV broadcast and web cast the meeting rooms used by the City's boards and commissions
• Adopt an ethical standard for City agencies and officials against trying to influence a decision by an advisory board or commission
• Each board or commission shall choose its own leadership, by-laws, procedures and agenda , but shall operate by Robert's Rules of Order, and strive for consensus
• Draft agenda will be distributed prior to each meeting and adopted at the beginning of the meeting
• Draft minutes shall be distributed prior to the meeting at which they will be approved, with sufficient time for board or commission members, and members of the public to suggest revisions
• Those present who are not board or commission committee members should be provided a reasonable opportunity to comment at meetings. This opportunity should normally be at the outset of the meeting or agenda item, not after the committee has acted or at the end of the meeting. Alternatively, a board or commission may provide members of the public the informal opportunity to participate in discussion throughout the meeting.
• Include on the web site the board or commission's draft agendas, draft and final minutes, and documents to be discussed, or that have already been approved
• Decision documents being referred to during a meeting by board and commission members shall also be available, at least for inspection purposes, to members of the public who are in attendance
• Wherever possible, materials relating to agenda items will be distributed some days prior to the meeting in order to allow board and commission members, and the public, to read and consider them beforehand
• Upon request, provide interpretation translation services so that people for whom English is not their first language, or are deaf or deaf-blind, can observe
Seattle Channel
• Create a separate TV cable channel for arts programming, to restore hours that were lost in recent years from the previous rebroadcast coverage of meetings of the City Council and of City boards and commissions. Ensure that these rebroadcasts again include substantial programming during weekday prime time and weekend daytime hours
• Greatly increase the broadcast and rebroadcast of meetings of City boards and commissions
• Provide closed captioning on Seattle Channel broadcasts
• Webcast the meetings of all the City's boards and commissions.
City web site(s)
• Include with mayoral proposals and proposed and adopted legislation, and in a timely way, all attachments that are referred to
• Post all drafts and proposed amendments that are expected to be brought up during the consideration of a Council Bill
• Keep web sites updated and user-friendly
• Include on public web sites many documents that the public is likely to want, thereby reducing the need for public records requests
• Do not deny access by the public to Seattle's "in web" (internal web site). Withhold internet access to the "in web" only for documents that are legally exempt under the Public Records Act.
Official Newspaper
• As the City Charter requires that official notices be published in a “daily newspaper of general circulation,” do more to facilitate alternatives to the current use of the Daily Journal of Commerce.
Public documents
• Adopt as the City's policy the Washington Attorney General's suggested model rules for the handling of public records
• Archive all electronic documents for at least a year, and do not deliberately record over backup tapes or other media
• Do not allow those who created a document to have the sole decision on deleting it; have that decision made by someone without a potential conflict of interest
• Proactively provide paper copies (e.g. newsletters, posters) for those people who have limited or no access to a computer
Responding to document requests
• Provide documents freely and quickly; do not invoke the Public Records Act as a way to slow down or reduce the provision of documents.
• Do not withhold documents just because legally they can be; decide this on a case by case basis
• With small requests, provide the documents at no charge--the Public Records Act allows but does not require a charge
• Provide the requested documents in electronic form if that is what the requester wants

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